The mystery surrounding the death of Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman took an explosive twist on Tuesday when it was reported that a formal request for the arrest of the country’s president and foreign minister were found at his house. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the story, in part because it’s just one facet of an even larger 20-year-old mystery. But here’s the basic outline, plus some theories for how Nisman died:
In 1994, the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, was bombed, killing 85 people and wounding hundreds in the country’s worst ever terrorist attack. No one has ever been convicted of the attack, but since the beginning, heavy suspicion has focused on Hezbollah and its patron, Iran. The AMIA attack followed a bombing at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires two years earlier, which was claimed by the Hezbollah-allied Islamic Jihad Organization.
In 2004, five Argentine suspects—a car thief and four former police officers—were cleared on charges of aiding the AMIA bombers, in a widely-publicized trial that was seen as a travesty and a cover-up by Argentina’s Jewish community—the largest in South America. In 2006, Nisman, a federal prosecutor, publicly alleged that Hezbollah had carried out the attack, and that it had been planned in Iran. In 2007, Interpol approved arrest warrants issued by Nisman for one Lebanese citizen and five Iranians accused of involvement in the attack, including Iran’s former intelligence chief and the former head of the Revolutionary Guard. Iran has rejected charges of involvement and has not extradited the accused.
Meanwhile, back in Argentina, Nisman also accused Carlos Menem, president of Argentina at the time of the attack, and several of his senior security officials of obstructing the investigation. Menem is still awaiting trial.
Nisman was first appointed to lead the investigation by former President Nestor Kirchner, who had been a strong critic of Menem’s handling of the case. Kirchner, who died in 2010, was succeeded by his wife Cristina Fernandez, the current president, whose tenure has been a rocky one, marked by accusations of corruption and an international dispute over the country’s debt. She has also gradually moved Argentina toward the foreign-policy ideology of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, criticizing the U.S. and seeking improved ties with some previously hostile governments in the Middle East, including Iran.
In 2013, Kirchner and the Iranian government agreed to establish a “truth commission” to investigate the AMIA bombing. Jewish groups and Kirchner’s political opponents criticized the commission, which wouldn’t have any prosecutorial power, as an attempt to sweep the case under the rug in the name of improving ties with Iran.
Then, last month, Nisman leveled the explosive allegation that Kirchner and her foreign minister, Hector Timerman, had reached a secret deal with Iran not to punish former Iranian officials in exchange for access to Iranian energy and defense markets. Nisman’s 289-page criminal complaint includes intercepted phone records that purportedly show secret negotiations between the two governments. “The president and her foreign minister took the criminal decision to fabricate Iran’s innocence to sate Argentina’s commercial, political and geopolitical interests,” Nisman said in January.
Kirchner maintains that Nisman’s report was false, pointing to the fact that the former head of Interpol denies that Argentina ever requested that the suspects be de-listed, as alleged, and that trade has actually declined between the two countries since the truth commission was set up.
Nisman was due to present his findings to congress on Jan. 19, but was found dead in his apartment with a bullet wound to the head the day before. A .22-caliber pistol found near the body suggested suicide, but there was no note and no gunpowder found on Nisman’s hands. The investigating prosecutor’s initial report on the case was also mocked for suggesting that the left-handed Nisman had shot himself behind his right ear. Investigators still haven’t ruled out homicide or “induced suicide.” And then this week came that aforementioned explosive twist: the official request for the arrest of Kirchner and her foreign minister found at Nisman’s house.
Supporters have labeled Nisman “victim 86 of the AMIA attack” and there’s heavy suspicion that he was killed to keep him from testifying. But by whom? An Israeli defense official tells the Daily Beast that Israel has “heavy suspicions” that Iran was involved. International media coverage of the case seems to be strenuously avoiding discussion of the scenario that is surely on many readers’ minds: that the Argentine government or someone acting on its behalf was involved. “I could be dead by the end of this,” Nisman had said before releasing his allegations.
Despite all the House of Cards jokes floating around Twitter on Tuesday, that’s pretty hard to believe. Argentina isn’t Putin’s Russia, and in any case, it’s difficult to see how the government would really benefit from killing Nisman. Yes, his allegations against Kirchner were shocking, but the fact that he hadn’t filed the arrest request probably means it’s because he knew it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Based on the precedent of Menem’s case, this would likely have dragged on for years. Now, this has wound up being a much, much bigger scandal because the prosecutor is dead under suspicious circumstances.
Kirchner has handled the case in typically erratic fashion, initially saying it appeared to be a suicide, then taking to social media to say she is “convinced that it was not,” and that Nisman had been killed in order to discredit her government by the same people who had been behind his investigation.
She hasn’t specifically identified these shadowy actors, but her aides have pointed fingers at former members of the intelligence services, including the former chief of operations of the Intelligence Secretariat, who worked closely with Nisman. Last week, Kirchner dissolved the secretariat, which was founded in 1946 by Juan Peron and served as a secret police during the country’s military dictatorship, in the name of “combating impunity.” Kirchner has accused rogue factions of the agency for attempting to sabotage the agreement with Iran.
It is likely true that Nisman, who had limited resources of his own to work with, was getting much of his information from these intelligence sources, and possibly also U.S. and/or Israeli intelligence services. The U.S. and Israel have long maintained that there’s strong evidence of Iranian involvement in the AMIA bombing. And U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks also show that Nisman was in frequent contact with the U.S. embassy.
Kirchner has yet another theory: She has also cast suspicion on one of Nisman’s aides, who lent him the gun, noting that this his Twitter account indicates that he’s an opponent of his government and that he has family ties to Clarin, a media group that has been critical of her. It was Clarin that reported the existence of the request for Kirchner’s arrest, contradicting earlier statements by investigators that no documents had been found at the scene.
It’s also not out of the question that Nisman, under extreme political pressure, really did commit suicide. Or, even more extreme, that he did so to make Kirchner look bad. It wouldn’t even be the first time a crusading attorney staged his own death to discredit his political opponents.
At the moment, it’s hard to lend much credence or completely dismiss any theory outright. What is clear is that whether or not Nisman’s allegations against Kirchner are true, her unfounded comments about an investigation in progress into a crime in which her administration is deeply involved have done permanent damage to her credibility. That won’t be a concern for much longer, though. There’s a presidential election in the fall and she’s barred by term limits from running again.
As for the big questions in this case—who bombed AMIA? Did the government impede the investigation? How did Nisman really die?—I think they will continue to go unanswered for a long time after that.