Prosecutor’s Death Raises Suspicions From Argentina to Iran.
A demonstrator holds a sign that reads in Spanish “I am Nisman” during a protest sparked by the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 19, 2015 (AP photo by Rodrigo Abd).
By Frida Ghitis, Jan. 22, 2015, Column
First came the accusation that sent shockwaves from Argentina to Iran. Then came the news that the man who leveled the charges was dead.
Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman always knew his life was at risk, but the drama that marked the final few days of his life ensures that his death will remain—probably forever—the subject of intrigue, suspicion and mistrust.
Nisman died this week, but the last chapter in his relentless quest to seek justice in the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentine history has produced at least one outcome that he would find gratifying: It has rekindled interest in what occurred in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994, despite efforts by the current government to put the deadly events in the past even if no one has been brought to justice.
Instead of one mystery, Argentina and the world now face three separate ones.
First, there is the question of who was responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center, known by its Spanish initials as AMIA, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds more. It was by far the country’s worst terrorist attack and the deadliest attack on a Jewish target anywhere in the world since the Holocaust. That was largely answered in a 2003 indictment accusing Iran and Hezbollah.
The second mystery relates to the bombshell accusation Nisman made just a few days before he was found dead. He charged President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman and a number of prominent Argentines of engaging in a cover-up to shield Iran from responsibility in the AMIA attack.
The third mystery centers on Nisman’s death.
At the heart of the three cases is the carnage at AMIA. Following the bombing, the investigation floundered, marked by corruption, government interference and international intrigue. One witness, a former Iranian intelligence officer, reportedly revealed that then-President Carlos Menem received $10 million from Tehran to block the investigation.
Nisman took up the case in 2004, after President Nestor Kirchner, the late husband of the current president, appointed him as prosecutor, calling the failure to solve it earlier a “national disgrace.” In 2006, a federal judge designated the AMIA case a “crime against humanity” and ordered the arrest of nine Iranian officials.
The next year Interpol issued red notices—arrest warrants—for five Iranians and one Lebanese man. The list included prominent Iranians, including then-Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi. Prosecutors and investigators were convinced that the bombing was carried out by Hezbollah on Iranian orders, and with operational, logistical and financial support from Iran. The Iranian government refused to cooperate, blocking the investigation at every turn.
Then something shocking happened.
In February 2013, Argentina announced it had reached an agreement with Iran—whose president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a committed Holocaust denier—to investigate the case together. The families of the victims were appalled. So were the investigators.
Under the accord, the two countries would form a “truth commission” whose verdict would be nonbinding and whose work would have no timetable.
The agreement, negotiated by Timerman, was seen by critics as an effort to stifle the investigation and spur relations with oil-rich Iran.
At the time, the Argentine president was increasingly aligning herself with the brand of leftist Latin American politics championed by Venezuela’s then-President Hugo Chavez, a close friend of Iran.
The case seemed to stall again, but the indefatigable Nisman did not let up.
In 2013 he released an indictment accusing Iran and Hezbollah in the bombing.
Then last week he made his dramatic accusations against Fernandez, Timerman and a number of other prominent Argentines, and asked a judge to question them on the AMIA case, saying he had definitive evidence showing they had engaged in a secret ploy to protect Iran in order to repair relations and launch a grain-for-oil trading program. The agreement between Buenos Aires and Tehran, he said, was the final stage in securing impunity in what he called “an alliance of the [Fernandez administration] with the terrorists.”
Nisman also said he had extensive telephone recordings of Iranian officials boasting of bombing the Jewish center.
Timerman fired back, calling Nisman “a despicable liar.” But the Congress was very interested. Nisman was scheduled to report his finding before a congressional committee on Monday, but on Sunday night his mother found him in his apartment lying in a pool of blood with a gunshot to the head.
Shortly after the discovery, Security Secretary Sergio Berni and the secretary-general to the president, Anibal Fernandez, told the media that Nisman appeared to have committed suicide. But few people believed them.
Nisman left a note, but it contained a grocery shopping list for his housekeeper. And tests for gunpowder residue on his hand and arm reportedly did not find any.
In his recent indictment, Nisman had accused Iran of establishing an extensive terrorist network in Latin America, with sleeper cells ready to be activated as needed.
Adding to the intrigue, Nisman’s death came just one day after Israeli forces struck a Hezbollah position in Syria, which Israelis said was preparing a cross-border attack on Israel. Among the dead in that strike was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughnniyeh, named by Nisman in his indictment as the operational leader of the AMIA attack and wanted by Interpol. He was killed in 2008 in a hit that many blame on Israel.
If investigators conclude that Nisman did not commit suicide, the list of suspects in his killing will be extensive. His recent accusations of wrongdoing by Argentine officials created a whole new slew of potential enemies. But Iran has a track record of conducting a campaign of international assassinations.
Experience with terrorism investigations in Argentina indicates this case may also stall, and the guilty may never come to justice, especially now that the most dogged of prosecutors has been silenced. But the stain on the Fernandez administration, and the suspicion of complicity in a murder so foul, will prove indelible.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.
This article was revised for clarity after publication.