By Toby Dershowitz - Alberto Nisman once told me he agreed to investigate Argentina’s deadliest terrorist attack on one condition: that he be able to pursue the case wherever the evidence led. This commitment to justice ultimately cost Nisman his life five years ago this week. (January 18)
Now, Argentina’s new government may be setting in motion a cover-up to protect Nisman’s killers.
As special prosecutor, Nisman found that Iranian officials masterminded the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Hezbollah operatives carried out the attack, which claimed the lives of 85 Argentine citizens. Nisman received death threats for uncovering this. Yet what ultimately put Nisman in jeopardy was the evidence he found that then-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her associates sought to cover up Iran’s role in exchange for trade concessions and left the door open for other motives.
Hours after Nisman was found with a gunshot wound to the head, Kirchner announced he committed suicide. This explanation did not hold up. A prosecutor in Kirchner’s successor's administration requested, and a judge ordered, a sophisticated forensic investigation, which found that Nisman was drugged, beaten, and shot by two assailants.
Nisman died less than 24 hours before he was scheduled to present the Argentine Congress with evidence of the alleged cover-up. Nonetheless, Kirchner and 11 others were indicted on charges of a cover-up. The former president enjoyed immunity from incarceration, however, because she had won election to the Argentine senate in 2017. Unusual for a former chief executive, she then ran for vice president in 2019. By winning the election along with running mate Alberto Fernandez (no relation), Kirchner maintains that immunity.
The new administration has already sent worrying signs of what may come next. Although the president said in 2017 that there was no way Nisman committed suicide, now he says there was no evidence Nisman was murdered.
For the post of attorney general, Fernandez has nominated Daniel Rafecas, a judge who almost derailed Nisman’s investigation of Kirchner and her associates by asserting there was no evidence of a cover-up. Fernandez has also appointed one of Kirchner’s co-defendants to a senior legal post, likely ensuring his trial will be delayed indefinitely. Carlos Zannini was one of Kirchner’s most trusted aides, who served 107 days in prison following his indictment for aggravated cover-up and obstruction of justice. The case has not gone to trial. Now, Zannini will serve as head of all lawyers representing federal government interests. If either influences the process, it will likely be in a direction inconsistent with Nisman’s findings.
Additionally, Sabina Frederic, the new minister of security, has taken a cavalier stance toward Hezbollah, which Argentina finally designated as a terrorist organization last year. Stunning the families of the AMIA bombing’s victims, Frederic said,It's an invention of the previous government to believe that international terrorism is a threat to us. She added that Argentina’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization is buying a problem we don't have a signal of her minimal interest in enforcement.
Frederic also said she planned to review the forensic report that confirmed Nisman was murdered. This seems to amount to interfering with the judicial process, as the prosecutor overseeing the case did not solicit such a review.
The Fernandez-Kirchner administration appears to be laying the groundwork to conclude that Nisman committed suicide, a move that would effectively cover up his murder by pretending there was no crime. We can expect this conspiracy theory would further argue that Nisman committed suicide because he believed that his investigation into the alleged cover-up of Iran’s role in the AMIA attack during the Kirchner administration was baseless, the ultimate goal that would exonerate those implicated.
This should concern the United States, since our Congress and successive administrations have sought to ensure that Argentina’s arrest warrants and Interpol red notices are kept in place for the Iranians believed to have planned the terrorist attack. U.S. officials have encouraged their Argentine counterparts to pursue justice fully and with integrity. In July 2019, the U.S. Rewards for Justice program offered a US$ 7 million reward for information “leading to the identification or location” of Hezbollah operative Salman Raouf Salman, who had “provided all the necessary support to perpetrate the AMIA terrorist attack.” Salman reportedly continues to plot attacks in the hemisphere today.
If Argentina’s new government backpedals on its counterterrorism commitments, it should not accrue the benefits of American and international support for its massive US$ 57 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, when its regional neighbors Honduras, Guatemala, and Colombia are reportedly moving toward designating Hezbollah a terror organization, the U.S. and its allies should support these efforts for the good of the hemisphere.
The granular investigations Alberto Nisman conducted before his death continue to serve as road maps for law enforcement officials and policymakers seeking to understand how Iran and Hezbollah have penetrated the Western Hemisphere.
As an homage on this fifth anniversary of his murder, Nisman deserves an unrelenting commitment to justice for his killers and for the victims of the AMIA bombings.