Five Years Later, Argentina Prosecutor Nisman's Death Still Shrouded in Mystery

'Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy,' a Netflix series on the case, does not solve the mystery of Nisman’s death, and it’s doubtful the truth will ever come to light

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Yossi Melman
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Women stand beside a picture of late prosecutor Alberto Nisman that reads in Spanish "Candles for Nisman," on the one-year anniversary of his death in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 18, 2016.
Women stand beside a picture of late prosecutor Alberto Nisman that reads in Spanish "Candles for Nisman," on the one-year anniversary of his death in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 18, 2016.Credit: Natacha Pisarenko,AP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Alberto Nisman died on Sunday, January 18, five years ago. The question of whether he killed himself or was murdered is still a mystery. Friends and supporters of the resolute, charismatic but controversial Argentine prosecutor have no doubt that he was murdered by Iranian agents or Argentines associated with then-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, in order to silence him.

Nisman died in his apartment in a luxury high-rise in Buenos Aires, the day before he was scheduled to give a detailed account to the National Argentine Congress of his decision to charge the president with covering up terror investigations in order to appease Iran.

Nisman’s rivals, especially former Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who died of cancer about a year ago, were equally sure that Nisman ended his own life. Timerman claimed that the prosecutor feared his own ability to stand up to the questions of Kirchner and Timerman’s supporters in Congress.

As if to magnify the mystery, Nisman died from a single shot fired from an old pistol, given to him the previous day by an aide and confidant, the somewhat peculiar Diego Lagomarsino. He claimed that Nisman wanted the gun for self-defense, because he feared for his life and sought to protect his family. As if all this were not enough, the prosecutor’s bodyguards did not report for work -- on orders from Nisman, they told investigators. They showed up hours later, only after his mother, Sara Garfunkel, gave him the key to his apartment.

“Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy” is a six-part documentary series available on Netflix this month. It tries not only to answer the question but also to tackle a twisty, complicated story brimming with conspiracy theories, international intrigue, secret bank accounts and beautiful women. It was made by the English-born, Barcelona-based director Justin Webster. The Argentine-Israeli journalist and filmmaker Shlomo Slutzky, who is deeply familiar with the entire affair, was a consultant.

Justin Webster, director of the documentary Netflix series 'Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President, and the Spy,' speaks about his film in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, January 2, 2020.Credit: Felipe Dana,AP

The director, however, minimizes the Israeli and Jewish aspects of the story. Not that Israel is the center of the world, even if some people think that it is. But its role in the story is enormous. In March 1992 Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a young Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim acting on orders from Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence, detonated a pickup truck filled with explosives at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. Twenty-nine people, including four embassy employees, were killed. Some 28 months later, Hezbollah and Iran bombed the city’s AMIA Jewish community center, using a similar method and explosives from the same source.

The 1994 attack killed 85 people, many of them Jewish, and injured 300 more.

Contrary to recent reports in Israel, Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on January 3, was not involved in the Argentina terror attacks. He was appointed head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force only in 1998.

Israel’s Mossad, Unit 8200 of Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Police aided in the investigation, together with the FBI and the CIA. To Argentina’s intelligence agency, the Secretaría de Inteligencia (SIDE), their findings were indisputable: Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence were responsible for the attacks. The show’s creator failed to show even one sentence of the interview that Shabtai Shavit, the director of the Mossad from 1989-96, gave to the series.

Even though many Jews star in the series — lawyers, journalists and politicians — and argue among themselves over whether Nisman’s death was murder or suicide, Webster focuses on Argentina’s intrigue-heavy, impulse-driven politics. In the quarter-century since the Buenos Aires attacks, seven Argentinian presidents found themselves drawn into the storm surrounding the incidents and its side effects. Carlos Menem and Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, who ruled the country to 2015, bore its main brunt.

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.Credit: Enrique Marcarian/REUTERS

Webster spins out the narratives of the affair like a tango — two slow steps, two fast and then slow again. The result is confused, repetitive, jumpy, with an overly artistic title sequence that resembles “Narcos,” the Netflix series about Pablo Escobar and drug dealers in Colombia and Mexico.

Alberto Nisman was born to a Jewish family in 1963. He went to a Jewish school, but Judaism did not play a major role in his life. Jewish and non-Jewish friends alike say that as a teenager he was pensive, talented and ambitious. He studied law, worked as a prosecutor and in 1997 he joined the team investigating the AMIA bombing.

In 2004 the judge who headed the investigation, Juan Jose Galeano, resigned after being accused of obstructing the investigation after it was disclosed that he, acting in concert with SIDE and with the knowledge of the head of the Jewish community, bribed a witness for the prosecution. He did so in order to implicate four corrupt police officers who were charged with selling the truck used in the attack to an Argentine citizen of Arab descent. The explosives were apparently smuggled to Argentina from Iran in the Iranian embassy’s diplomatic pouch. The police officers were acquitted. Galeano was sentenced to six years in prison.

Nisman became a key figure in the investigation from that moment. In 2003, Interpol issued a so-called Red Notice — a nonbinding request to law enforcement agencies worldwide that they locate and provisionally arrest a fugitive — for 12 Iranian diplomats, politicians and intelligence and military officials. The suspects included then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then-intelligence minister Ali Fallahian, then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization and Ahmad Vahidi, who later served as the country’s defense minister.

Nisman made use of the investigation conducted by Israeli intelligence, meeting with agency heads including Mossad chief Meir Dagan. He often featured in reports in the Israeli media (including an interview with me in Haaretz) and frequently traveled to the United States to consult with intelligence and administration officials. He clearly fell in love with his position and the glamor that came with it: press conferences, discussions that went on until late at night, dinners, lectures and going to exotic beaches with female friends.

Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman, 2013.Credit: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

After his death, two investigative journalists reported that Nisman had illegal secret bank accounts in the U.S. into which he, his mother and Lagomarsino deposited around $1 million. According to the reporters some $250,000 had been transferred from the account of Israeli daily Yisrael Hayom.

Yisrael Hayom did not reply to an appeal from Haaretz for comment.

Nisman’s mother and associates claimed the money in the accounts was from honoraria for speaking engagements.

But despite the question marks about Nisman’s lifestyle and his obsessions, there is no doubt that he acted tirelessly and with great courage. He was convinced that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the AMIA bombing. Another important individual worked alongside Nisman, Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso — the “spy” in the title of the Netflix series. As a young intelligence agent, Stiuso had worked in the security apparatus of the protofascist junta that ruled Argentina from 1967 until 1983, when it fell.

When democracy was restored, Stiuso climbed the intelligence ladder, becoming a key figure in the investigation of the attacks and an ally of Nisman’s. A senior CIA official who knew him and took part in the investigations described as an Argentine Rasputin. Stiuso had enormous influence with the Argentine government, and it was claimed that he gathered information on presidents and cabinet ministers and threatened to blackmail them if they strayed out of line.

A woman holds a sign reading "Justice for Nisman! Memory and Truth" during a vigil on the first anniversary of Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman's death in Buenos Aires, on January 18, 2016.Credit: AFP

Not long before Nisman’s death, Stiuso gave an interview to Argentine television in which he claimed that President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman were scheming to stall the investigation, to capitulate to Iranian pressure and withdraw the Interpol Red Notices and establish an Argentine-Iranian investigative commission. To Nisman, Stiuso, Israel and the Jewish community, it was comparable to having the murderer and his victims investigate the crime together. Shortly after the interview, Kirchner fired Stiuso, who fled to the United States, fearing for his life.

If Nisman is the good guy with the white hat in the Netflix series, Kirchner and Timerman are the baddies. After Nisman’s death, a draft of warrants for the arrests of Kirchner and Timerman were found in his apartment that were meant to lead to the former’s impeachment.

Perhaps the most interesting and enigmatic figure in the story is Hector Timerman. His father, Jacobo Timerman (also known as Jacob Timmerman), was a Jewish journalist, widely honored in Argentina and abroad. He was arrested and tortured by the junta, which accused him of being a friend to, and receiving funding for his newspaper from David Graiver, a Jewish businessman who was called the “banker” to the banned leftist guerrilla group known as Montoneros (which cooperated with the PLO). Intervention by the Israeli government, which at the time was selling arms to the junta, led to Jacobo Timerman’s release from prison and transfer to Israel. He soon discovered, however, that his ideology and worldview clashed sharply with those of Israel’s, particularly with regard to the first Lebanon War.

Daniel, one of Jacobo Timerman’s three sons, refused to serve in Lebanon, and the divide between the Timermans and Israel widened until Jacobo Timerman left Israel for the United States, together with Hector and the third son, Javier. Daniel remained in Israel, where many people saw his father as being ungrateful to the state.

Javier became a businessman in America. Hector, who had studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, became a diplomat, serving as the Argentinian ambassador to the U.S. before being appointed foreign minister in Kirchner’s government.

Kirchner was elected president in 2007, succeeding her husband, Nestor Kirchner (who died in 2010), in the tradition of Eva “Evita” Person and Isabel Peron — strong women who worked hand in hand with or inherited the presidency from their husbands.

As a senator, Kirchner supported Nisman and his desire to conduct a thorough investigation of the AMIA bombing. But at a certain point, she pivoted and began taking action against him and the probe. Her conduct was seen as a systematic effort to placate Iran. Shlomo Slutzky believes that Mauricio Macri, who served as president Argentina’s from 2015-19 and is a right-wing conservative and great friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump, made common cause with Nisman to falsely portray Kirchner as having taken bribes from Iranian agents to shut down the investigation.

Slutzky also judges, based on his own research, that Nisman took his own life. His is a minority opinion. Many people believe Nisman was murdered. Even Kirchner, who was recently elected vice president, first claimed that Nisman killed himself but later said she believed he was killed by Argentine intelligence agents.

“Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy” does not solve the mystery of Nisman’s death, and it’s doubtful the truth will ever come to light.

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