A President in Iran's Pocket, a Bomb and a Mysterious Death: Who's Who in the Case That's Rocking Argentina

Argentina's border police concluded that the 2015 death of Alberto Nisman was a homicide. Where does the case stand now?

FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2017 file photo, a person holds a photo of late prosecutor Alberto Nisman during a demonstration on the second-year anniversary of his death in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Nearly three years after an Argentine prosecutor was found with a fatal gunshot wound, police say new evidence points to a premeditated murder of the man who was investigating the country's worst terrorist attack. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano, File)
Victor R. Caivano/AP

It’s a story that could have been written by a Jewish Shakespeare with a talent for the cold turn of the knife.

Nearly three years ago, on January 18, 2015, Alberto Nisman was found dead on the bathroom floor in his home, a rental apartment in a fashionable district of Buenos Aires, with a single bullet wound to the head and no trace of gunpowder on his hands.

Nisman, 51, an Argentine federal prosecutor, was set to report to a congressional committee the next day, Monday, about the bombastic accusation he had made just three days before: that Argentina’s then-President, Cristina Fernandez, had signed a secret pact with Iran that would in effect absolve four senior Iranian officials of responsibility for the worst act of terrorism in Argentine history — the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in July 1994 that killed 85 people and injured hundreds more.

Nisman devoted the last decade of his life to investigating the case. His appointment in 2004 — by then-President Néstor Kirchner, Fernandez’s husband and predecessor — was hailed as a breakthrough after years of ham-fisted and corrupt attempts to prosecute the case. It took Nisman only two years to formally accuse the Iranian government of masterminding the bombing using local agents of Hezbollah to carry it out.

Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman, 2013.
Natacha Pisarenko/AP

In November 2007, after receiving Nisman’s findings, Interpol published the names of six individuals including, notably, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister, as suspects subject to international arrest warrants in connection to the bombing.

In late September of this year, a report by Argentina’s border police formally declared that Nisman was the victim of a homicide. On Monday, The Associated Press published an account of these findings. So where do things stand now?

Suspects: Formally, nobody knows. Argentine authorities have only said that the DNA of two other people was found in the bathroom in which Nisman was found dead, without providing any details. It has not been determined if Nisman died there or in another location. Informally, warring elements in Argentina’s intelligence services and the government of Iran are the principal suspects.

Alberto Nisman: The Argentine government, then led by Fernandez, initially declared him a suicide and buried his decade of work. Nisman was well aware that he was being targeted, and days before his death said, in an interview, “whether or not I’m here, the proof is here.”

Rescue workers search for survivors and victims after a bomb destroyed the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people, on July 18, 1994.
Enrique Marcarian/REUTERS

Argentine federal investigators are now investigating Nisman’s death as a political assassination.

In December 2015 Mauricio Macri, a pragmatic centrist, was elected president, roundly defeating Fernandez’s appointed successor. Fernandez is now a former president, and thus subject to prosecution. She, her son, Máximo, and several associates have been charged with various forms of financial wrongdoing and have been forced to relinquish their passports. Fernandez’s latest attempt to protect herself, by running for a Senate seat in last month’s legislative elections, ended with her ignominious defeat. A parliamentary seat would have grated her legal immunity.

With the revival of Nisman’s accusations — that she colluded with Iran in signing a secret memo absolving Tehran of the murder of her own citizens — Fernandez could face charges of high treason. If the investigation into Nisman’s death in any way leads to her, she could face additional charges of homicide.

Hector Marcos Timerman: The son of the famed journalist and author Jacobo Timerman, Timerman was Fernandez’s foreign minister and in that capacity signed the secret memorandum with Iran. Like Fernandez, he too faces prosecution for high treason.

Like Nisman, Timerman came from Buenos Aires’ successful Jewish professional class. Timerman, 63, has had cancer for years, but he is well enough to engage in spirited Twitter battles regarding the Nisman case, even against the young, Jewish Argentine journalist Damian Pachter, who broke the story of Nisman’s death.

Hector Timerman
AFP

Damian Pachter: Pachter broke the story of Nisman’s death with a short tweet late on the night of January 18, 2015, writing: “I’ve just been informed about an incident in the home of prosecutor Alberto Nisman” and then, “They found prosecutor Alberto Nisman in the bathroom of his home in Puerto Madero in a puddle of blood. He wasn’t breathing. Doctors are there.”

>> Why I fled Argentina after breaking the story of Alberto Nisman’s death | Damian Pachter <<

Pachter was immediately attacked by government officials, including Fernandez herself. He fled Argentina after receiving death threats. His boarding pass for a flight from Buenos Aires to Uruguay was tweeted on the Argentine government’s official Twitter feed in what appeared to be a brazen attempt to incite violence against him. Pachter has not returned to Argentina. He never revealed his source for the news of Nisman’s death and now works in Tel Aviv for i24News.

Mohammad Javad Zarif: Iran’s foreign minister, he mysteriously mentioned “the suicide of the Argentine prosecutor Nisman” a few weeks after Nisman’s death, accepting the initial theory advanced by Fernandez. Iran hoped to clear the name of its officials, including Velayati, by signing the memorandum that would have allowed Iran to try the four suspects in Iran rather than prosecuting them in Argentina. The four officials are still at large.

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez waves as she arrives for the 47th Mercosur Summit in Parana, Argentina, Dec. 17, 2014.
Natacha Pisarenko/AP

If Fernandez is charged with treason, this will be a negative turn of events for Zarif and a stain on Iran’s international standing, just as it finds itself in a major public relations campaign following U.S. President Donald Trump’s refusal to recertify Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear deal.

What now?

According to Ricardo Sáenz, a federal prosecutor who was a close friend of Nisman, “We continue to do our work. Nisman’s investigation is continuing ahead under a new team and his death, finally, we hope, will be resolved by the system of justice. It was always clear Alberto didn’t kill himself, but was trying to continue his mission.”