quinta-feira, 19 de fevereiro de 2015
What Happened to Alberto Nisman?
By Jonathan Blitzer
Activists attend the departure of the funeral cortege carrying the remains of the Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/GETTY
On January 18th, just before midnight, an Argentine state prosecutor named Alberto Nisman turned up dead in his apartment. The cause of death was a shot to the head, fired from a .22-calibre pistol that the prosecutor had borrowed from his assistant the day before. Nisman told his assistant that an Argentine spy had warned him that his life was in danger. The two main doors to the apartment were locked, and several bodyguards had been standing watch outside. Analysis of a third passageway, a small nook used to gain access to the apartment’s air-conditioning unit, revealed a footprint and a smudge, but nothing more. The door to the bathroom, where Nisman was found, was locked from the inside. It looked like he had killed himself, but could someone else have made him do it?
Four days before Nisman died, he had accused President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her Foreign Minister, Héctor Timerman, of a spectacular crime. The two were the “authors and accomplices of an aggravated cover-up and obstruction of justice,” Nisman told a Buenos Aires court. They had allegedly protected the perpetrators of the bombing, in 1994, of a Jewish community center, the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA). The attack, which left eighty-five people dead and hundreds injured, was the worst in the country’s recent history. Nisman had spent more than ten years investigating the case, and he had long believed that the Iranian government and agents of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, were behind it. In recent years, he had also become concerned that Kirchner’s government had conspired to shield them from justice. (The case is still unresolved and the attack’s perpetrators remain unpunished.)
Nisman had produced a two-hundred-and-eighty-nine-page report that, drawing on wiretapped conversations between a union leader aligned with Kirchner and an Iranian official, claimed that Kirchner and Timerman had secretly met in 2013 with the Iranians to broker a deal. According to Nisman, the Argentines had agreed to give up their hunt for the terrorists in exchange for Iranian oil. The government immediately dismissed the accusations as baseless, but opposition legislators seized on Nisman’s pronouncement and called on him to testify before Congress. He died the night before he was supposed to deliver that testimony. In his final hours, he tried and failed to insure that the congressional hearings were closed to the public. “I might get out of this dead,” he said.
Hours after news of Nisman’s death broke, protesters took to the streets with signs that read, “Yo soy Nisman,” to express their anger over his death; many accused the government of orchestrating it. The government, meanwhile, did little to dispel the suspicion. The next day, Kirchner posted a rambling message on Facebook, which read, in part, “Suicide provokes … first: stupefaction, and then questions. What is it that brought a person to the terrible decision to end his life?” Four days later, she was less philosophical, and more portentous. Nisman’s death “was not a suicide,” Kirchner wrote on her Web site. “They used [Nisman] while he was alive, then they needed him dead.” The “they” in this case could have included government critics who wanted to frame the President; a rogue faction of the Argentine intelligence apparatus; the Central Intelligence Agency; or the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. The President’s public pronouncements are often soaked in paranoia. But in this case, the government’s line—that Nisman was manipulated, then discarded, by elements of the intelligence community intent on discrediting Kirchner—traded on widely held doubts about Nisman’s independence as an investigator.
Nisman never had the institutional means to determine, on his own, whether the Iranian government had a role in the AMIA bombing. Instead, his information came largely from the former Argentine director of counterintelligence Antonio (Jaime) Stiusso. Stiusso’s information, which steadily implicated the President in some nefarious détente with Iran, is widely thought to have come from U.S. and Israeli intelligence services. One theory that has gained ground since Nisman’s killing turns on Stiusso and his agenda in feeding Nisman damning evidence against the government. “Stiusso had two faces,” the Argentine journalist Santiago O’Donnell told me. “The good Stiusso had the face of the prosecutor Nisman. The bad Stiusso did not have a face and was a shady and powerful person who instilled great fear.” Back in 2004, the Justice Minister held up a photograph of Stiusso on television and accused him of presiding over a “kind of Gestapo” that intimidated and blackmailed politicians. The President ousted Stiusso last year, and his departure posed problems for Nisman and the investigation. At the moment, Stiusso’s whereabouts are unknown.
This theory that Stiusso was somehow directing Nisman’s investigation is riddled with conjecture. But the notion that Nisman was a kind of cipher for Argentine and foreign-intelligence operatives has its roots in certain demonstrable facts. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks reveal that Nisman obsessively consulted with the American Embassy. He went to the Embassy with advance tips on his investigation, he shared knowledge about judges’ leanings, and he showed Embassy officials drafts of his arrest orders and made revisions based on their comments. In October, 2006, Nisman formally accused Iranian officials and a Hezbollah operative of orchestrating the AMIA attack. U.S. Embassy representatives told Nisman that they were “convinced” his case was solid, and “congratulated” the Argentine prosecutors for their “dedication.” Some of the same cables refer to U.S. efforts to impose international sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, a campaign that the Argentine government joined at the United Nations.
This enthusiasm for the case against Iran is particularly noteworthy because Iran and Hezbollah were never the only suspected culprits in the bombing. Since the start of the investigation, there’s also been the so-called Syrian track, which suggests that Syrian agents may have underwritten the attack. The Argentine President at the time, Carlos Menem, was born in Argentina to Syrian immigrants, and had personal and political ties to the country. In 2008, in federal court, Nisman requested an arrest warrant for Menem and his brother because they’d allegedly impeded the investigation into a Syrian man thought to have been involved in the bombing. One federal investigator went so far as to testify under oath that the case against the Syrian suspect was never pursued because Menem’s brother called the judge and quashed the inquiry. (Menem denied any malfeasance, saying that the charges amounted to “political persecution.”) Nisman eventually dropped this line of investigation and apologized to American authorities for introducing it without warning. The Syrian theory may never have been entirely solid, but its swift abandonment was suggestive. “Today, the Syrian track is more of a political debate than a legal one,” the Argentine political scientist Juan Gabriel Tokatlian told me earlier this week.
The AMIA investigation has lasted twenty years and spanned more than three Presidential administrations. During that time, the original investigating judge, the former head of the Argentine intelligence services, some of the prosecutors, police officers, and the former head of an AMIA-affiliated organization have all been charged with wrongdoing. Four Buenos Aires police officers were arrested for overseeing a stolen-car ring that included the vehicle thought to have been used in the AMIA bombing, but they were acquitted in 2004, when it emerged that the investigating judge had paid a four-hundred-thousand-peso bribe to a key witness for the prosecution. The money for the bribe came from the state secretary of intelligence.
The AMIA case confirmed the public’s worst fears about the courts. Since the years of the military dictatorship, they have been under the thumb of the intelligence service, which has routinely made use of its telephone-surveillance arm to coddle and control judges. Because of the welter of procedural irregularities, Interpol, at one point, lifted its red notices, or international arrest warrants, for the twelve Iranian nationals initially alleged to have been responsible for the bombing. Nisman was part of the original investigation team, but was never directly implicated in the impropriety. In 2004, President Néstor Kirchner, who called the botched investigation a “national disgrace,” appointed Nisman to head up a new investigation. His findings, released two years later, renewed the claims of the earlier investigation against Iran and Hezbollah.
In 2012, President Cristina Kirchner began charting a new foreign-policy course that set her and Nisman at odds. “There was a broader shift in foreign policy away from the U.S. and Europe,” Daniel Kerner, the head of the Latin American division at Eurasia Group, told me. Some of this was owing to the U.S. recession and the European debt crisis, some of it to Argentina’s continued trouble with U.S. courts over debt owed to American hedge funds. The Argentine government felt less beholden to Western powers, and softened its position on Iran. “There were always doubts about the accusations against Iran,” Kerner said. “At some point, the Kirchner government may have just recognized that these accusations were a function of our closeness to the U.S.” In 2013, Cristina Kirchner’s government signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran, in which the two countries sought to create a truth commission to investigate the bombing. Critics lambasted her for aligning the government with the primary suspect.
In his report, Nisman alleged that the memorandum of understanding grew out of a trade deal for Iranian oil. As part of that deal, Argentina would request that Interpol withdraw its red notices on Iranian suspects. The former head of Interpol, Roland Noble, said that he was shocked to hear about this aspect of the alleged deal, and categorically denied any knowledge of it. (He even went so far as to produce earlier correspondence with Timerman, in which the two clearly agreed that the red notices had to remain in place.) State news agencies batted away the accusation that Argentina would barter for Iranian oil; the country needed refined, not crude, oil, which Iran couldn’t provide. There were other questions about the legitimacy of Nisman’s charges. He did not have the support of the local Jewish community, and he had circumvented the judge who had long presided over the AMIA case. Horacio Verbitsky, the president of the country’s leading human-rights group, the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, pointed out to me that only two pages of Nisman’s nearly three-hundred-page report concern the legal basis of the criminal charges against the President, which is striking considering the magnitude of the accusations.
The government’s erratic response to Nisman’s death created further confusion. The journalist who first reported the death, Damian Pachter, left Argentina for Israel last Saturday, claiming that his life was in danger. Inscrutably, the government posted Pachter’s flight information to its Twitter account, and said that it was trying to protect the journalist. At this point, it’s an open question whether this behavior is a sign of guilt or mere haplessness. Cristina Kirchner has since accused Nisman’s assistant of being an opponent of the government, with seemingly little basis; part of her evidence is that his brother works for a law firm with connections to a media conglomerate that has been critical of her administration.
More substantially, the Kirchner government announced the dissolution of the country’s notoriously corrupt intelligence secretariat. It’s unclear how, exactly, Kirchner intends to reform the intelligence apparatus, when, over the past couple of years, she has staffed its agencies with younger and more loyal officials. Eurasia Group’s Kerner, among others, described this as a common practice for presidents nearing the end of their terms; it’s possible that a raft of corruption cases awaits Kirchner when she leaves office, in December. Kirchner’s move has at least temporarily assuaged the longstanding concerns of Argentine human-rights activists about the intelligence secretariat’s interference in the justice system. But for now, it seems fitting that Kirchner, who’s been nursing a fractured foot, has been making her announcements from a wheelchair.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 13:14