The violent death of a brave prosecutor who accused President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina of a secret attempt to cover up Iran’s alleged involvement in the bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires 19 years ago has sent political shock waves through her already ailing government and the rest of the country.
Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, 51, was due to appear before a special committee in the Argentine Congress on Monday afternoon to discuss the evidence contained in a 300-page indictment against President Fernández. The papers were presented to court last Wednesday.
He alleged that Fernández and her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, had conspired in an “aggravated cover-up and obstruction of justice” involving the Iranians accused of bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) center in 1994 which left 85 people dead.
Nisman was found in the bathroom of his luxury apartment in the Le Parc tower in the expensive Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires late Sunday, when his security guards forced the door after his mother became worried because he wasn’t answering his phone.
His mother found him dead in his bathroom with a bullet wound to his head and his small-calibre gun next to him. The government moved quickly to say his death was a suicide. “Who knows what went through the prosecutor’s head to take a decision of that nature,” Presidential Secretary Aníbal Fernández told reporters on Monday morning.
Opposition leader Mauricio Macri, mayor of Buenos Aires and a candidate in the October presidential elections, appeared deeply shocked at a press conference on Monday. “I’ve gone from shock to indignation to anger,” Macri said. “The prosecutor who accused the president turns up dead. This can’t have happened.”
Journalist Jorge Lanata, who has investigated and published a book on the AMIA bombing, was also stunned. “People on the street are saying: ‘They (the government) killed Nisman’,” Lanata said in an interview on TV on Monday “If this was a crime story, then the government would be the main suspect.”
Nisman had reported he was receiving death threats since he presented his charges at court last week. “I could wind up dead because of this,” he told the newspaper Clarín. “My life changed today. It’s my job as a prosecutor and I’ve had to tell my 15-year-old daughter that she was going to hear tremendous things about me,” he added, referring to a likely smear campaign from the government following his charges.
The two top trending topics on Twitter in Argentina on Monday became: #MuerteDeNisman (DeathOfNisman) and #CFKAsesina (CFKMurderer) in reference to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
In 2007, on the basis of Nisman’s investigations into the attack, Interpol issued international warrants against six Iranian officials accused of masterminding the bombing. Among them was Moshen Rabbani, the former Iranian cultural attaché in Buenos Aires when the blast occured, Nisman’s prime suspect in the case.
Nisman’s investigation was stopped two years ago when Foreign Minister Timerman signed a surprise memorandum with Iran setting up a binational “truth commission” to interrogate the Iranian suspects in Teheran, effectively suspending his attempt to have them extradited to Argentina.
Nisman said his indignation doubled when he discovered that a wiretap his investigation had placed on phone calls between Buenos Aires and Rabbani in Iran allegedly revealed that the 2013 agreement had been the result of secret phone conversations between negotiators appointed by Fernández and Rabbani himself.
“Nothing happened without express directives from the president,” Nisman said in a 45-minute interview on TN news channel on Wednesday night, referring to the wiretapped conversations between Buenos Aires and prime suspect Rabbani.
The charges seemed to deal a crushing blow to Fernández in the final year of a presidency already encumbered with a 40% yearly inflation rate, a default on Argentina’s foreign debt last July and a court investigation into corruption charges against her Vice-President, Amado Boudou.
Nisman said he had 330 discs of phone conversations in which the alleged Argentine secret negotiators referred to him as a “dirty Jew” in their conversations with Iran. The calls showed the negotiators passed secret information from his investigation to the Iranians, Nisman claimed.
Under direct orders from the president, three negotiators had conducted secret talks with Rabbani through a mediator since 2011, offering to clear him and the other Iranian suspects of charges, in return for Iranian oil to alleviate Argentina’s chronic energy deficit, the prosecutor alleged on TV.
“You can’t negotiate impunity with anybody, and especially not with the accused. Iran admits and even boasts that it carried out the attack,” the prosecutor said of the intercepted calls. “It’s astounding how the attack is admitted.”
Reports of his suicide were met with disbelief by various journalists, including this correspondent, who had been in contact with Nisman in the last few days. “He seemed confident and ready to appear before Congress today,” said Nicolás Wiñazki on TV, who last
had contact with Nisman on Saturday afternoon. Nisman promised this correspondent an interview on Monday but later brought it forward by one day to Sunday but failed to answer any further emails.
For survivors and relatives of the victims of the still unsolved blast, however, Nisman’s death is just another in a long series of letdowns in a 19-year investigation that has failed to put a single culprit in jail.
“The culprits in the case must be found,” blast survivor Mario Averbuch remarked angrily to reporters Monday morning. “We have cover-ups, charges, versions, but regarding the case itself we have nothing.”