Was Argentine Intelligence Involved in the Prosecutor's Death?

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Protester holding sign that reads 'I am Nisman' outside the AMIA Jewish community center, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, January 21, 2015. Credit: AP

BUENOS AIRES – What is being called the “suicide” – quotation marks included – of Alberto Nisman, the chief prosecutor investigating the 1994 terror attack against the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, has left Argentina in shock.

Only 51 and the father of a 15-year-old girl, he was found lying at home with a bullet in his right temple only days after he accused Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman of participating in a massive cover-up of Iran’s participation in the AMIA attack, and hours before he was scheduled to testify before Congress.

On Monday night, thousands of people carrying signs saying “Todos Somos Nisman” (“We’re All Nisman”) filled the streets of all major Argentine cities amid cried for justice and for the rapid elucidation of his death. Argentina’s Jewish community, of which Nisman was a nominal member, was to hold a march on Wednesday.

Nisman was expected to present his findings to Congress’s Committee on Criminal Legislation on Monday morning. It was widely anticipated that his testimony would expose compromising taped conversations of high government officials involved in Argentine negotiations with Iran and reveal the names of intelligence agents who were party to the talks. He had returned early from Spain, where he was on holiday with his daughter, to present his case against the president and the foreign minister, and was looking forward to an onerous day. Ruling party legislators had warned that he’d be welcomed with “bared teeth.”

It is through his death, however, that Nisman has laid bare the sordid, often galling demimonde of Argentine politics.

Adriana Fein, the magistrate investigating his death, has so far announced that no third parties were involved while allowing that a borrowed gun, and not one of two weapons personally owned by Nisman, was used in his unnatural end. The government also sped to announce that his door was found locked from within, an irrelevant fact given the 10 federal police officers who guarded him, the luxury tower in which he lived, the doorman and the relative ease of contemporary locksmithing.

Nisman had been discredited by Kirchner’s allies and was fearful he could come to harm. Just on Saturday, he told a journalist from the daily Clarín that he “could end up dead from all this.”

Few in Argentina believe Nisman committed suicide. Instead, all eyes are on the government that through a series of clumsy attempts to distance itself from any culpability has only awakened ever greater doubts.

As she often does, Cristina Kirchner turned to Facebook to express her thoughts. “In the case of the suicide (?) of the AMIA chief prosecutor, Alberto Nisman ” she began.

Julián Domínguez, the speaker of the House of Deputies, where Nisman was expected on Monday, interrupted his vacation to declare that “we want to know which sector of the mafia that still exists in Argentina forced Nisman to make this decision.”

“We know for a fact that there are branches of intelligence, the last bastions of opacity, that intimidate judges and destabilize democracy,” he added.

Most Argentine eyes are focused on the intelligence services, which have been feuding with the government since last December, when Kirchner dismissed their leadership, among whom were several officers with close ties to Nisman.

Nisman’s claims included the accusation that agents very close to the president were directly involved in illicit dealings to achieve a Memorandum of Understanding secretly signed between Iran and Argentina in 2012. The deal, had it been put into place, would have rendered null and void Nisman’s decade of investigative work.

This is the cause for the widespread Argentine suspicion that Nisman’s “suicide” was only part of increasingly ugly turf warfare among various branches of intelligence.

The case looks only to get murkier. In the coming weeks, an Argentine court will begin hearing another of the fruitless web of legal cases, this one attending to the original cover-up that enabled those responsible for the crime to evade justice. Among those imputed is a former Argentine President Carlos Menem; Rubén Beraja, the former head of the Jewish community, and the original investigator, who was removed from his post after being filmed bribing his only suspect with $400,000.

It is too early to know what effect Nisman’s abrupt disappearance may have on the future of his case, or, for that matter, of his country. Once a replacement prosecutor is named his legal caseload should proceed ahead.

Kirchner is in her last year of presidency, and it is impossible to predict how this galvanizing event may impact the election year, or any of her party’s candidates. No matter what, the vagaries of local judicial politics are such that any it is unlikely significant steps will be announced before December 10, when a new president steps into her tarnished shoes.

The writer is an Argentine author and journalist.

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