Alberto Nisman reportedly knew he had powerful enemies; enemies who might kill. Still, he persevered, raising damning accusations against Iranian officials, against Hezbollah, against Argentina’s President, against people whose hands gripped political power and live ammunition.
But last weekend, a day before he was supposed to testify in a major investigation, he was found by his mother lying in a pool of blood in his Buenos Aires apartment. He had a bullet in his head.
Nisman, an Argentine prosecutor, was determined to seek justice over his country’s deadliest terrorist attack, the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center, the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, or AMIA, which left 85 people dead and hundreds more injured.
What the country needs now is an investigator such as Nisman — someone who will resist the pressure, the threats and the machinations of domestic politicians and international conspirators. Unfortunately, there are already signs that the quest to find the truth about how he died, and about who might have killed him, is becoming tangled in the same truth-strangling tentacles Nisman sought to cut during the 10 years he spent investigating the AMIA bombing.
If Argentina’s prosecutors have nothing to hide, they should reassure the world by inviting outside observers to verify that the process is moving forward according to international standards. Yet government officials, who have a clear conflict of interest, are already acting inappropriately, reportedly showing up at the crime scene, prematurely declaring the death a suicide and offering self-serving theories of the case.
The government’s interest in Nisman became sharply intense a few days before his death.
On January 14, Nisman announced he had filed a criminal complaint accusing Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, her foreign minister, Hector Timerman, and other prominent individuals of engaging in a conspiracy with Iran to cover up Tehran’s role in orchestrating and financing the AMIA bombing. In an earlier indictment, he had accused Hezbollah and Iran of carrying out the hit. Nisman said he had multiple recordings of Iranian officials boasting of their role in the attack, which was also the deadliest on a Jewish target since the Holocaust.
The indictment also accused Iran of setting up a terrorist network in Latin America, with agents who “execute terrorist attacks when the Iranian regime decides so … whether directly or through its proxy, the terrorist organization Hezbollah.”
Back in 2007, an Argentine judge had obtained Interpol arrest warrants for five Iranians — including then-Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi and one Lebanese man. But the case had stalled without cooperation from Tehran. Argentina had proven incapable of bringing anyone to justice, and then-President Carlos Menem was accused of receiving bribes to stop the prosecution.
The late President Nestor Kirchner, whose widow is the current President, called the impunity over AMIA a “national disgrace” when he appointed Nisman in 2004. But then, in 2013, Fernandez announced a stunning move: Argentina and Iran had reached a deal to investigate the case jointly through a “truth commission,” with no timetable or enforcement powers. That seemed to be the final element in Nisman’s investigation pointing toward a conspiracy to absolve Iran from responsibility for a crime that he and his investigators were convinced Iran had committed.
As the investigation into Nisman’s death got underway, Security Secretary Sergio Berni and Anibal Fernandez, secretary-general to the presidency, were quick to point to a possible suicide. But few seemed to agree, and the evidence quickly undercut that theory — there was no gunpowder residue on Nisman’s arm, for example, and he reportedly also left a note about groceries for his housekeeper.
Attention is turning to why Berni was one of the first people to turn up at Nisman’s apartment. Meanwhile, on Thursday, the President announced via Twitter that she had changed her mind and that she now believes Nisman did not commit suicide. Her new theory, though, is very convenient for her government — she suggests Nisman may have been assassinated as part of a plot against her government. She also claims that Nisman was tricked to believe she had conspired to protect Iran and Hezbollah terrorists, and that the plan was for him to accuse her publicly and then be killed to damage her.
All this would seem even more depressing if not for one bit of positive news for those hoping to see justice done — Nisman kept meticulous records, which are now public. His 2013 indictment, for example, describes in detail the meetings in which Iran ordered the attack on the Jewish center. And this Tuesday, the day after he was to report his findings to Congress, a judge released the new criminal complaint he had just filed.
The 289-page document asserts that “the deliberate decision to cover up the perpetrators of Iranian origin … was taken (by Fernandez) and implemented primarily by (Timerman).” He says the conclusions to be reached by the so-called truth commission had already been drawn, and Vahidi would never be questioned. The President has for her part denied Nisman’s allegations.
With mounting evidence of murder, even Berni now says it was not a suicide. The question then, of course, is who did it and whether Argentina is capable of mounting a credible investigation.
In recent years, Iranian and Hezbollah agents have been fingered in more than 20 terrorist plots around the world, including in India, Cyprus, Kenya, Bulgaria and Thailand. If Nisman’s killing is another in that list, the world needs to know, and the United States needs to know what Iran has been involved in as it negotiates with the regime over its nuclear program. And finally, if Argentina’s government is in some way involved, it, too, must be held to account.
More than 20 years after the massacre at AMIA, the entire world must keep up the pressure to ensure the truth about what happened does not disappear with the death of Alberto Nisman.