By: Louise Højen, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
On Sunday January 18, 2015, special prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment in Buenos Aires from what appears to be suicide. He was leading the investigation of the 1994 terror bombing of the Center for Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association (AMIA, Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) Jewish Community Center, in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed. Last week, he released a 300-page report accusing high-profile Argentine officials such as current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, and other senior state officials, for covering up Iran’s alleged involvement in the bombing. Mere hours before his death, Mr. Nisman was scheduled to present his collected evidence during a closed session at the Argentine Congress. The reasons behind his death are being questioned and are currently the focus of a spate of mainstream media in Argentina, which have led to mass protests demanding truth and justice.
21 Years of Injustice
On July 18, 1994, a car bomb exploded in front of the AMIA, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, leaving 85 killed and 300 wounded. Alberto Nisman led the investigation for more than 10 years in search of revealing a big injustice. In 2006, he accused the Islamic Republic of Iran and its top executives of masterminding the bombing, which was executed by Hezbollah (a Lebanese Shia Muslim group) and linked to Iranian funding in the 1980s. In 2008, he demanded that former President Carlos Menem and Juan José Galeano, the leading judge in the 1994 AMIA bombing case, should be detained based on grave accusations of corruption regarding the ongoing investigation. At that time, it was speculated whether Nisman was pretending to be in good standing with President Fernández, but the current situation leaves few doubts about their relationship. The 21 year-long investigation took new heights on January 14, when Nisman revealed his sensational 300-page report, in which he accused President Fernández and other high-profile officials, of protecting Iran and securing virtual impunity for its involvement in the AMIA bombing in exchange for preferential relations to aid Argentina’s severe energy deficit with oil.
Of course, both President Fernández and other government officials immediately denounced Nisman’s findings. Interpol’s former general secretary, Roland Noble, publically supported the government, which was a severe blow to Nisman’s credibility. The Fernández administration also pointed to former collaboration with Iran on finding those responsible and prosecuting them, including the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to set up a shared truth commission in search of the alleged perpetrators. However, the MoU was never signed by Iran’s government, and after an appeal from Nisman, it was ruled unconstitutional by the Argentine Federal Court on March 15, 2014.
After Nisman’s death, the Argentine government quickly pronounced it as suicide. However, evidence seems to support the opposite; that the initial autopsy found no gunpowder on Nisman’s hands, there was no suicide letter, and those in contact with him prior to his death called him confident before the scheduled meeting with Congress on January 19. However, President Fernández has reversed her story and now claims that she no longer believes that Nisman committed suicide. It is a suspicious turn of events given her first response on January 19 in a lengthy rambling post on her Facebook page emphasizing the tragedy of “what would compel a person to make the horrific decision of committing suicide?”
President Fernández’ Change of Heart
Information released in the days following Nisman’s death has been sparse, but the investigation continues, and President Fernández’ sudden rejection of suicide as the cause of death is not surprising, but has been received with skepticism by the public. On January 22, Fernández wrote a note in which she explains that she never believed that Nisman committed suicide, though a good part of it is spent on devaluating his report as false.
Critical voices, including well-placed members of Argentina’s Jewish communities, see the death of Nisman as clear sign of declining democracy in Argentina, and thousands of people have taken to the streets since Sunday, January 18. The next day, an estimated 20,000 people gathered at Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in a rally, while smaller demonstrations took place in Mendoza, Córdoba, and outside the presidential residence in Olivos, among others. Suspicions and accusations are spreading and the government has realized they could not endorse the suicide story, which explains why President Fernández and other state officials have changed their positions from claiming suicide to move further in favor of Nisman’s death being a murder. The government has begun to claim that Nisman’s death is a plot against the government to boost the 1994 AMIA bombing case. However, no major break-through has been made neither in the investigation of the death of Nisman nor in the 1994 bombing case. Therefore, Fernández’ attempt to bolster public support is largely futile since a majority of Argentinians believe in “Nisman’s thesis that the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that the Fernández government signed with Iran [in 2013] was designed to cover up the latter’s involvement in the 1994 bombing[.]” The demonstrations emphasize lack of results to hold those accountable for a death that is increasingly being perceived as a cold-blooded murder.
The 86th Victim of the 1994 AMIA Bombing
In the days following Nisman’s death, he quickly became mourned as the 86th victim of the 1994 AMIA bombing. The support for his recent findings and continuous fight to bring justice to the 1994 victims’ families, has been clear through the various rallies and demonstrations since January 19. The public is especially upset now in the aftermath of France’s Charlie Hebdo case, where the government swiftly and diligently worked to find the perpetrators. Argentinians demand the same governmental investment to erase the sense of injustice and despair among civil society. As Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League explained about Nisman;
“The Jewish community has lost a stalwart hero, and Argentina and all people who pursue the truth and justice with a passionate zeal have lost a great fighter. Throughout the years, all kinds of forces have tried to put him down, to destroy him. Every time he uncovered new stuff or exposed some interests that weren’t happy, they set the courts against him or they set the police against him. And every time they tried to put him down, he fought it, he got up and beat them.”
But not this time. If Fernández really wants to prove her change of heart, she and the government must bring results to the table. It is the government’s responsibility to provide security for its citizens. However, the Argentine government’s next move is surely to be met with skepticism, as people with Nisman’s death find themselves powerless to the Argentine government’s incompetency (or lack of will?) to protect its citizens and human rights. Journalist Roxana Levinson explains that “[t]his death is like another bomb. It’s a death sentence for truth and justice in the AMIA case.” Argentina’s government must terminate this bureaucratic discussion on the cause of Nisman’s death, which does nothing but show their poor ability to achieve results. If not, Argentina is facing the danger of ending up in the same situation as the Mexican and Paraguayan governments, who continuously fail to find the culprits behind respectively the 43 missing student teachers and the murdered journalists from 2014, and thousands of other victims of the insecurity. Nisman might be dead and unable to personally put an end to the 21 year-long prosecution of those behind the 1994 AMIA bombing, but the case is far from closed. A new tide of Argentine citizens has risen and is demanding justice.
By: Louise Højen, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.
Featured image by jmalievi. January 19, 2015. Taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/89851889@N04/15700114094
[i] Latin News. ”Nisman death rocks the country,” Latin American Regional Report, January 18, 2015, RBS-15-01: 7.
[ii] El Universal. ”CRONOLOGÍA. Atentado a mutual judía de Argentina y #MuerteDeNisman,” Jan. 19, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/el-mundo/2015/cronologia-muerte-nisman-1069961.html
[iii] El Universal. ”CRONOLOGÍA. Atentado a mutual judía de Argentina y #MuerteDeNisman,” Jan. 19, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/el-mundo/2015/cronologia-muerte-nisman-1069961.html
[iv] La Nación. ” Quién era el fiscal Natalio Alberto Nisman,” Jan. 19, 2015. Accessed Jan. 23, 2015: http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1761272-quien-era-el-fiscal-natalio-alberto-nisman
[v] The Economist. “Oil and trouble,” Jan. 16, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: https://www.google.com/search?q=argentina+nisman&oq=argentina+nisman&aqs=chrome..69i57j0j69i61.2503j0j4&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=93&ie=UTF-8#safe=off&tbm=nws&q=iran+and+argentina+AMIA+trade
[vi] Official Cristina Fernández de Kirchner website. “AMIA, una vez más, sin Justicia ni Verdad,” Jan. 15, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://www.cfkargentina.com/amia-una-vez-mas-sin-justicia-ni-verdad/ ; Official Cristina Fernández de Kirchner website.” Nota de Interpol ratifica que las acusaciones hechas por el fiscal Nisman son falsas.” Jan. 16, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://www.cfkargentina.com/nota-de-interpol-ratifica-que-las-acusaciones-hechas-por-el-fiscal-nisman-son-falsas/
[vii] Bronstein, Hugh and Alejandro Lifschitz. “Argentine court strikes down ‘truth commission’ deal with Iran,” Reuters, May 15, 2014. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/16/us-argentina-iran-idUSBREA4F00320140516
[viii] Latin News. ”Nisman death rocks the country,” Latin American Regional Report, January 18, 2015, RBS-15-01: 7.
[ix] Official Cristina Fernández de Kirchner website. “ENERO 22, 2015 AMIA y la denuncia del fiscal Nisman,” Jan. 22, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015:http://www.cfkargentina.com/amia-y-la-denuncia-del-fiscal-nisman/
[x] Quote has been translated by the author. The official quote is: “¿Qué fue lo que llevó a una persona a tomar la terrible decisión de quitarse la vida?” from the official Facebook page of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “AMIA. Otra vez: tragedia, confusión, mentira e interrogantes.” Jan. 19, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: https://www.facebook.com/notes/1014136438614222/
[xi] BBC. “Argentine leader convinced Nisman death was no suicide,” Jan. 22, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-30931458
[xii] Official Cristina Fernández de Kirchner website. “ENERO 22, 2015 AMIA y la denuncia del fiscal Nisman,” Jan. 22, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015:http://www.cfkargentina.com/amia-y-la-denuncia-del-fiscal-nisman/
[xiii] Lahrichi, Kamilia. ”Argentina Jews Reject ‘Suicide’ of Crusading Terror Prosecutor as Rage Spreads,” The Jewish Daily Forward, Jan. 21, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://forward.com/articles/213132/argentina-jews-reject-suicide-of-crusading-terror/
[xiv] Latin News. “Argentina: No signs of a third party in Nisman’s death,” LatinNews Daily, January 20, 2015.
[xv] La Nación. “Las contradicciones de Cristina Kirchner y Sergio Berni por la muerte de Nisman,” Jan. 22, 2015. Accessed Jan. 23, 2015: http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1762116-las-contradicciones-de-cristina-kirchner-y-sergio-berni-por-la-muerte-de-nisman
[xvi] Latin News. ”Nisman death rocks the country,” Latin American Regional Report, January 18, 2015, RBS-15-01: 7.
[xvii] Lahrichi, Kamilia. ”Argentina Jews Reject ‘Suicide’ of Crusading Terror Prosecutor as Rage Spreads,” The Jewish Daily Forward, Jan. 21, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://forward.com/articles/213132/argentina-jews-reject-suicide-of-crusading-terror/
[xviii] Heilman, Uriel. “Nisman Mystery: Hezbollah, Argentine Government Fingered in Death of AMIA Prosecutor,” Jewish Exponent, Jan. 21, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://jewishexponent.com/headlines/2015/01/nisman-mystery-hezbollah-argentine-government-fingered-in-death-of-amia-prosecutor
[xix] Lahrichi, Kamilia. ”Argentina Jews Reject ‘Suicide’ of Crusading Terror Prosecutor as Rage Spreads,” The Jewish Daily Forward, Jan. 21, 2015. Accessed Jan. 22, 2015: http://forward.com/articles/213132/argentina-jews-reject-suicide-of-crusading-terror/
[xx] Human Rights Watch “Mexico,” in World Report 2014, 2014. Accessed Jan. 23, 2015: http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/mexico ; Højen, Louise. “Pablo Medina: Paraguay’s Third Victim of Drug Politics,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Oct 24. Accessed Jan. 23, 2015: https://www.coha.org/pablo-medina-paraguays-third-victim-of-drug-politics/