Argentina: The strange death of Alberto Nisman
Benedict Mander and John Paul Rathbone
January 22, 2015 7:24 pm | Financial Times
Last Saturday, Alberto Nisman sent a playful photograph to a friend of his desk strewn with papers and fluorescent highlighters — a sign of the Argentine prosecutor’s diligent preparations for a congressional hearing that promised to be the highlight of his career.
Three days earlier, the 51-year-old had formally accused Cristina Fernández, the Argentine president, of trying to cover up Iran’s alleged role in Argentina’s worst ever terrorist attack: the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Nisman was due to present his case, the fruit of a decade of painstaking investigations, on Monday.
On Sunday night, however, just hours before the hearing, Nisman was dead. His mother, with the help of a locksmith, forced her way into his apartment and found him lying in a pool of blood beside a .22 calibre pistol and a casing in the bathroom of his heavily guarded 13th floor flat in the capital’s expensive waterfront district of Puerto Madero.
The country was shocked by the death; an official autopsy suggested it was suicide. But surprise soon turned to incredulity. This was fuelled by accounts from the last people to have contact with Nisman, who recalled him appearing excited and nervous about the hearing — he had warned a local newspaper that he “could end up dead” — but far from suicidal.
“This beats any spy movie. All the information is completely contradictory,” says Luis Tonelli, a professor of political science at the University of Buenos Aires. “People are quite convinced it was not suicide. They think it was murder, and most believe the government is behind it.
Fernández speaks out
At first, the government backed the theory that Nisman had killed himself. But Ms Fernández changed course yesterday. In a letter on her website she wrote that she was “convinced” Nisman’s death was “no suicide”, and added that he had been manipulated by rogue spies and given “false information” for the 290-page report, which he had filed in a Buenos Aires court last week. “The real operation against the government was never Nisman’s accusations in themselves . . . [it] was the death of the prosecutor after [making his accusations],” she wrote.
Ms Fernández did not say who she thought was responsible but her comments will further fuel the outcry over Nisman’s death.
His possible murder and the report’s explosive allegations are the stuff that conspiracy theories are made of. It has implications that stretch from Argentina’s presidential palace and Ms Fernández’s political fate, to the Middle East and jihadi terrorist networks that allegedly operate in Latin America. A chain of plausible causality can even be traced back to Argentina’s economic problems, which have been compounded by a group of hedge funds that have been suing Buenos Aires for more than a decade in a New York court.
Rarely have high finance, economic diplomacy and low skulduggery met in such a comprehensive and tangled way — or in such an intriguing figure as Ms Fernández, a controversial leftist leader who often models herself on Eva Perón, the Argentine popular heroine.
“This is the worst political crisis that Cristina Fernández’s government has faced,” says Rosendo Fraga, a political analyst.
Nisman’s report alleges that Ms Fernández, her foreign minister Héctor Timerman, who is himself Jewish, and other officials opened back channel talks with Iran, which Nisman believed had masterminded the bombing of the AMIA Jewish centre using local cells of the Lebanon-based militant group Hizbollah. The aim of the talks, which ostensibly culminated in a 2013 agreement to set up a bilateral “truth commission”, was for Argentina to seek the removal of Interpol arrest warrants for high-ranking Iranian officials implicated in the attack. In return, the governments would cut a deal for Argentina to swap grains for Iranian oil that Buenos Aires desperately needed, it alleges.
Although Argentina has extensive reserves of oil and gas, declining production meant that it was forced to start importing energy in 2010, and has since spent $50bn on plugging its energy deficit. That has sapped its foreign exchange reserves, which are scarce because of the country’s exclusion from capital markets due to a dispute with a group of “holdout” creditors, led by billionaire Paul Singer’s NML Capital, who have sued the country for full repayment following its $100bn sovereign debt default in 2001.
“It [the mooted Iranian deal] had the [Argentine] president’s seal of approval. Everything had been agreed, the AMIA case was going to be used as a pawn to satisfy geopolitical interests,” wrote Nisman in his report. “Without worrying about the evidence, the facts or the real responsibility in the attack, the Iranian citizens were going to be removed from the case, Iran’s hands were going to be washed and this was decided from very high up.”
Insiders say Nisman’s report and his subsequent death have thrown the presidential palace into a heightened state of confusion. Officials have suggested that Nisman was tricked into believing there was a government-led attempt to whitewash the bombing. Nisman was “sold on a connection that did not exist,” says Aníbal Fernández, no relation to the president but her secretary-general.
They have further sought to downplay Nisman’s allegations by pointing out that bilateral trade between Argentina and Iran has declined since a peak in 2010, when it reached $1.5bn.
Independent economists point out that any “oil for grains” deal would have been very difficult to implement.
“It was a fantasy. Sometimes [this government] just doesn’t understand things, even if it wants to do them,” says Miguel Kiguel, an economist and former finance secretary, who points out that the exporters of Argentine grains — the country is the world’s biggest exporter of soyabean meal — are international private companies such as Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus, which the government has often clashed with. “This is not Venezuela, where the government owns all the country’s exports,” he adds.
Interpol had cast doubt on Nisman’s earlier report. Ronald Noble, its secretary-general from 2000 to 2014, had responded to earlier allegations with a staunch defence of the Argentine government. In a letter to Mr Timerman, Mr Noble said that Buenos Aires’ stance towards the arrest warrants for the Iranian suspects had been “consistent and unwavering”, and that it was “100 per cent committed” to them remaining in place.
There had not always been an acrimonious relationship between Nisman and the government. The son of a Jewish textile merchant, Nisman was put in charge of the AMIA case in 2004 by Ms Fernández’s late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, shortly after he came to power in 2003. Aware of the sensitive nature of an earlier bungled investigation, which had failed to produce any prosecutions after almost a decade, Kirchner wanted a fresh probe.
The initiative did much to smooth relations between Argentina’s 200,000-strong Jewish community, Latin America’s largest, and the ruling Peronist party, which had been patchy ever since its founder, Juan Domingo Perón, gave refuge to scores of Nazi leaders after the second world war. Nisman’s leadership also began to produce results. By 2006 he had formally accused a number of high-ranking Iranian officials of orchestrating the AMIA massacre. This led Kirchner, in a 2007 speech at the UN, to criticise Iran for its failure to extradite the suspected criminals. In 2008, a year after Ms Fernández succeeded her husband as president, Nisman ordered the arrest of Carlos Menem, the country’s president at the time of the bomb attack, for allegedly obstructing justice. This move was aimed at “winning” Ms Fernandez’s support for Nisman, according to a US cable published by WikiLeaks.
It was also during this period that Argentina’s long-running legal battle with its so-called holdout creditors started to take its toll on the economy. In late 2012, the country lost a key ruling in a New York court over pari passu, or equal treatment, clauses in its defaulted bond contracts.
As a result, Argentina was ordered to pay the creditors in full, which it steadfastly refused to do, even if that meant continued exclusion from international credit markets. Buenos Aires had already introduced capital controls to protect foreign exchange reserves being depleted as the energy deficit swelled. But with the court ruling, the apparent attraction of a soya-for-oil deal with Iran only increased.
Iran’s role in South America had long been a worry for western security agencies. The so called tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay has a long tradition of smuggling with documented links to terrorist financing, especially Hizbollah. But by 2012 Iranian influence was waning in the region, according to a US state department report. Nonetheless, in early 2013, Argentina announced it would collaborate with Tehran on the joint commission to investigate the 1994 attack.
Ms Fernández tweeted that the accord was “historic”, because it provided “a legal instrument . . . to advance knowledge about the truth of the attack”. Many disagreed. Among them Nisman — the accord marked a breaking point for his relations with the government.
“It [the truth commission] was a disaster. It was never the way to reach justice,” says Sergio Widder of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Buenos Aires, a Jewish human rights organisation. “Suppose a judge had gone to Tehran and had been able to interrogate a suspect, who he then decided to arrest. Do you really think the Iranian police force would have helped?”
For reasons that remain unknown, the agreement fell apart, and no soya-for-oil deal materialised.
“We warned it [the commission] wouldn’t work. A matter of such strategic importance was handled very unprofessionally and with tremendous superficiality. It got us absolutely nowhere,” says José Octavio Bordón, who was Argentina’s ambassador in Washington during the Kirchner era. “I’m not saying this is why Nisman died, but we wouldn’t be in these circumstances today if they hadn’t committed that diplomatic and political error.”
None of this helps explain Nisman’s death. In Iran, it is presented as another plot by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, to blacken Iran’s name ahead of a possible deal with the west over its nuclear programme.
In Israel, where the foreign ministry has expressed its “deep sorrow over the tragic circumstances” of Nisman’s death, and praised him as a “fearless fighter for justice”, his death is painted as further evidence of the insidious reach of Iran often condemned as a state sponsor of terrorism.
And then there is Argentina, where suspicions of government involvement remain rife. Judge Ariel Lijo, who brought bribery charges against vice-president Amado Boudou last year, is studying the case amid calls for a foreign investigative team to take over.
Perhaps the biggest question, for now, is what Ms Fernández will do next. Her confrontational style could yet aggravate the situation and further complicate October’s presidential elections, which she cannot contest.
Indeed, domestic politics may hold the key to Nisman’s death. Carlos Germano, a political analyst, says Ms Fernández’s biggest political “deficits” are her poor relations with the judiciary and her “complete loss of control” of the intelligence services. She has attempted to purge both institutions recently, in an attempt, say her critics, to insulate herself from any legal action once she leaves office. Such ruptures may have produced rogue factions within the services. “These factors go a long way to explaining what is going on,” he says.
Meanwhile, there are more questions than answers. If Nisman did shoot himself, why were there no traces of gunpowder on his right hand? Why was the gun found by his side not his own? But if it was murder, why did his 10-man police protection unit fail him? And what of the attack he was investigating?
Additional reporting John Reed in Jerusalem and Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran