Argentina's Prosecutor Planned to Arrest Top Politicians

Alberto from Argentina

Photo courtesy of Jewish

Argentina's Prosecutor Planned to Arrest Top Politicians
| published February 4, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

A cold case in South America which stretches across the decades and spans the globe just became more complicated, and deadly.

The original terrorist bombing took place just over 20 years ago in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was a massive attack which killed 85 people, injured 312, and caused millions in damage to the area near the target of the bomb—a Jewish community center located in a busy, bustling downtown neighborhood.

Though over time several people were arrested and charged, and though through the decades the security apparatus of Israel assassinated or apprehended others, investigators and law enforcement always suspected that there was more to the attack, and that it was not the work of a small cell of lone wolves. Eventually, the bombing was attributed to Iran. Based on evidence collected over time, and the testimony of many witnesses, prosecutors came to the conclusion many years ago that the attack was the result of a conspiracy which involved Iranian diplomats and government officials, including then President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who—those documents show—may have personally ordered the attack via Iranian officials in Argentina.

But charges were never brought against those top officials accused of devising and organizing the bombings, and Iran has consistently denied that it planned, executed, or had any advance knowledge of the attack. Still, the investigations went on, sometimes against the backdrop of resistance within Argentina, and sometimes in the face of political pressure to drop the case once and for all. But in the late aught years, more evidence came to light, and the additional information pointed more definitively toward Iran.

In 2013, under new pressure to bring the case to closure, Argentina’s lawmakers voted to create a “Truth Commission,” a massive, full-scale reassessment into the cold case, complete with the funding necessary to conduct a thorough, exhaustive study into every aspect of the terror attack. What investigators found was perhaps even more troubling than the bombing itself, now slightly more than two decades old: some top Argentine political officials may have been complicit in a conspiracy to shield the Iranian officials from responsibility. Separate investigations by Israel had come to much the same conclusion as well.

Last month, Argentina’s top prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who has studied the case for decades, began preparing his final report. In that report, he would charge Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman of shielding Iranian officials from any responsibility in the original terror attack. On Saturday, January 17, Nisman spent the day preparing that final report, and late that night he drafted arrest warrants for several individuals, including a request that police arrest both the President and the Foreign Minister.

The next day, Sunday, Nisman was found dead in the bathroom just outside the small office in his home—shot in the head. Nearby, on the floor, police found a .22 caliber gun and a shell casing.

Later that day he was scheduled to present his much-anticipated findings to the National Congress. In that report, he would have presented his case as to why some of Argentina’s own top politicians were responsible, even decades later, of complicity in covering up Iran’s role in those bombings.

Though officially police say they have not determined anything about Nisman’s death except that he died from a gunshot wound to the head, initial indications were already rumored to be that law enforcement considered it a likely suicide. Several reports in Argentine newspapers say that information leaked to them by police indicate that the suicide theory remains the strongest.

But there are plenty of skeptics in Argentina, who point out that Nisman’s drafting of that arrest warrant—and the contentious conclusions of his 26-page report—was sufficient grounds for a political conspiracy at the highest levels, a conspiracy which included a murder meant to look like suicide. Law enforcement officials combing through the apartment for clues found part of that report, and the arrest warrants, stuffed in the kitchen trash inside the apartment. Nisman left no suicide note, and there were no apparent clues to family, friends or co-workers that he suffered from depression.

Now, closure may not come easily in Argentina for an already complex case spanning two decades.

An opposition newspaper says it has knowledge that Nisman had redacted the sections regarding the arrest for the President and Foreign Minister from the report, a 350-page-plus report, and had planned instead to redraft it as a separate summary. According to these reports, Nisman would ask that the President and Foreign Minister appear instead before a jury to answer questions.

Police say it is unclear how the report ended up in the apartment’s trash, or if, in fact, another person may have entered the apartment between Saturday and Sunday, when Nisman was reported as not responding to phone calls or the door.

There have already been questions about the complicity of Nisman’s own security detail—a ten-man team assigned to provide the prosecutor with round-the-clock protection. Members of that team told police that they were unable to reach Nisman by phone inside his apartment, which is located in a high-rise tower in Buenos Aires. They said they found his Sunday newspaper still sitting on the doormat outside his front door, and repeated attempts to knock or ring produced no results.

Instead of contacting federal police or other law enforcement, members of that security team called Nisman’s mother. Still unable to unlock the apartment door, they brought in a locksmith, who was able to gain entry. Nisman’s own deadbolt key was still in the lock. Inside, in the bathroom, was Nisman’s body.

Questions will no doubt swirl for weeks, months, perhaps years about the circumstances surrounding Nisman’s death. Some in Argentina are now convinced he died as part of an ongoing conspiracy which has its roots in previous decades. Others, including some members of the legislature, say his theories had moved dramatically out of the mainstream and into fantasy. But this week’s revelations—that he was only hours away from ordering the arrest of Fernandez de Kirchner and Timerman—fuel speculation of conspiracy and cover-up at the highest levels. Was Nisman’s death a suicide? Or did someone high up in the Argentine government, an ally of the President perhaps, order that he be murdered before he could present his case to the people of Argentina?

Though there has been little doubt that Iran was behind the terror attacks in 1994, some of Nisman’s more recent conclusions—that top Argentine officials conspired, perhaps swayed by bribes of cash and favors, to shield top Iranian officials—were controversial. Several newspapers and investigative journalists had previously reported that another motive was Argentina’s balance of trade. Investigative reporters had come upon evidence—inconclusive—that Argentinian officials wanted to protect its critical balance between oil imports and grain exports. Iran is one of the world’s largest producers of oil, and because of sanctions is able to sell to only a select few countries, one of those being Argentina. Likewise, the life of Argentina’s struggling economy often hangs on its ability to produce surplus grain, textiles, and food products for export—items much in demand by Iran still under the yoke of sanctions.

Nisman’s supporters point out that with oil prices falling dramatically for more than six months, and with Argentina’s economy struggling to regain its footing, it served the political and economic interests of both countries to let the cold case remain on ice. Nisman himself had also come to the conclusion that because of Argentina’s delicate but important trade with Iran, Argentine officials may have attempted to shield Iran from further accusations of involvement in the bombings, and that those same Argentinian officials just wanted Nisman’s 20-year-old case to go away.

Several top lawmakers, however, have called into question his theories. Chief of Cabinet Ministers Jorge Capitanich told reporters that Nisman’s most recent conclusions about collusion between Iranian and Argentine officials were “crazy, absurd, illogical, irrational, ridiculous, and unconstitutional.”

But others see Nisman’s death as all-too-convenient, especially in the context of its timing. Some think his suicide was staged, and suggest he was murdered instead. Nisman was set to request the arrest of top Argentine officials, and he told reporters that he had the evidence to back up his allegations that President Fernandez de Kirchner and other top officials were engaged in obstruction of justice.

Now, many Argentines fear, the true facts of the complex case may never be fully understood, and closure may never come to Argentina’s worst case of terrorism. And a request for the arrest of the top Iranians involved may never come to fruition, as now the course of the decade’s long investigation is unclear.

Israel issued a statement calling Nisman “a brave and prominent jurist who fought ceaselessly for justice” in the decades-old case.