Politics

More questions than answers five years after Nisman death

16th January 2020

By Luciana Bertoia

More questions than answers five years after Nisman death

Almost five years from today, the prosecutor in charge of investigating the still unresolved 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, was found dead four days after filing a criminal complaint against then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Argentine courts have still not determined how Alberto Nisman died — although the case is being investigated as a homicide — or whether his accusation of an impunity pact with Iran was based on fact.

The coming five-year anniversary and the release of a Netflix documentary on the issue have put it back into the spotlight. But for those not familiarized with the case, complex as it is, a quick recap of the story might be needed first.

</p> <h2><strong>A criminal complaint against the president</strong></h2> <p>On December 16, 2014, Fernandez de Kirchner fired the top officials of the then Intelligence Secretariat (SI). The move was an attempt to end the domination of then Director of Operations Antonio &#8220;Jaime&#8221; Stiuso, a spymaster who had joined the agency in the 1970s. Stiuso collaborated directly with prosecutor Nisman in the <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/07/18/macri-points-finger-at-iran-25-years-after-amia-bombing">investigation of the AMIA attack.</a></p> <p>Less than a month after the SI reshuffle, Prosecutor Nisman shook the country by filing a complaint accusing Fernández de Kirchner, accusing her of trying to cover up the attack that had left 85 people dead. Nisman had returned to Argentina to make the judicial filing while the courts were in  summer recess, leaving his fifteen-year-old daughter alone in Europe. Her mother, federal judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado, had to travel from Barcelona to Madrid to pick her up while Nisman was suddenly flying back to Buenos Aires. The urgency of the accusation was never fully understood, although Nisman told some close friends that he feared his displacement from the AMIA Unit (also known as UFI- AMIA, in charge of the bombing investigation) might be coming next.</p> <p>The prosecutor argued that the president had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Tehran to ensure impunity for officials involved in the attack and to get Interpol to lift the Red Notices against them. A day after the complaint was filed, then Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble denied that the Memorandum had that effect on the Red Notices, casting some initial doubts on Nisman’s accusation, as the government retorted that the memorandum’s goal was to push for the questioning of the Iranian suspects, who until then had remained outside of Argentina’s reach. Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers called a session of Congress for January 19, 2015, to allow Nisman to present his accusation before a congressional committee.</p> <p>But Nisman never made it. He was found shot in the head and in a pool of blood in the bathroom of his apartment in the Le Parc tower, one of the most expensive buildings in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Puerto Madero.</p> <h2><strong>Nisman&#8217;s death</strong></h2> <p>The investigation into his death was initially in the hands of prosecutor Viviana Fein. The day after his body was found, an IT expert working with Nisman, Diego Lagomarsino, appeared before Fein to testify that he had lent him the gun found next to Nisman’s body.</p> <p>According to Lagomarsino, Nisman asked him for a gun because he wanted to protect his daughters. Another member of the prosecutor&#8217;s security detail, federal police officer Fabián Benítez, also testified that Nisman had asked if he could get him a gun.</p> <p>Fein was never able to find evidence that Nisman had been killed. She believed he might have been induced to commit suicide and was investigating an unusual series of phone calls between intelligence agents on the weekend of his death. Fein never understood why Stiuso never returned Nisman&#8217;s calls after he filed his complaint against the president.</p> <p>Stiuso testified twice in the investigation of Nisman&#8217;s death. The first was during Fernández de Kirchner&#8217;s administration, before he left the country saying his life was in danger. The second time was in 2016, when Mauricio Macri was already at the Casa Rosada. Stiuso then said that Nisman had been murdered, although he did not provide any evidence on the matter. Hours after that appearance before court, Judge Fabiana Palmaghini decided the case should be heard in a federal court instead, taking the case away from prosecutor Fein.</p> <p>On December 26, 2017, federal judge Julian Ercolini ruled Nisman&#8217;s death a homicide. He indicted Lagomarsino as a necessary participant in his murder for surrendering the weapon. The judge also accused part of Nisman&#8217;s custody of covering up the murder. But neither Ercolini nor federal prosecutor Eduardo Taiano argued who the killer might have been.</p> <p>In support of the murder hypothesis, investigators used an expert opinion provided by the Argentine Gendarmerie, the country’s border guards. Border guard experts argued that Nisman was drugged with ketamine, a common recreational drug, before being beaten and killed by two people at 2:46 on Sunday, January 18, 2015.</p> <p>With a new administration in office since last December, the current <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2020/01/09/new-security-minister-sabina-frederic-signals-big-policy-shakeup">Security Minister Sabina Frederic</a> announced that they would review how this expert assessment was carried out, while President Alberto Fernández said that the results had been absurd and that there was no proof that Nisman had been killed.</p> <p>Judicial sources explained to <em>The Essential</em> that Prosecutor Taiano is working on a request to have the four policemen who oversaw Nisman&#8217;s security put on trial.  Before filing the request to Judge Ercolini, he will have to analyze he results of the analysis of the electronic devices that were taken from the policemen, from Lagomarsino and from the Casa Rosada.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the prosecutor is examining 25,000 screenshots showing the faces of those who entered the Le Parc apartment complex before Nisman was found dead. The Federal police is still working on the cross-checking of calls between intelligence officials, which prosecutor Viviana Fein had deemed vital to understanding what had happened to her colleague.</p> <h2><strong>Many cases</strong></h2> <p>Parallel to the investigation into Nisman’s death, other probes are also running. The investigation into the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding with Iran was sent to trial on March 2018 by Judge Claudio Bonadio. That case has Fernández de Kirchner, Carlos Zannini (current solicitor-general), Senator Oscar Parrilli and Justice Secretary Juan Martin Mena as defendants, among others.</p> <p>Federal Oral Court 8 &#8211; in charge of the process &#8211; has not yet defined whether the trial will begin. Judicial sources confirmed to <em>The Essential</em> that the court was considering summoning Noble to testify before the trial begins. &#8220;If Noble testifies, the trial falls,&#8221; former International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, a critic of the Nisman’s complaint, said.</p> <p>Other investigations include accusations of money laundering linked to Nisman. In contrast with the memorandum probes, these are seen with more sympathy by the current administration.</p> <p>After Nisman&#8217;s death, his ex-wife Sandra Arroyo Salgado reported that Nisman had an account with Lagomarsino, his mother Sara Garfunkel and his sister Sandra Nisman. The account at the U.S. bank Merrill Lynch had deposits of more than USD 600,000 and was not declared by either party. The investigators also did not understand why Nisman drove an Audi Q3 car, which on paper belonged to a company of his friend Claudio Picón, nor how Garfunkel had bought three properties in Uruguay and a trust in Buenos Aires City.</p> <p>Bonadio, a controversial judge historically at odds with Fernández de Kirchner, also oversaw this investigation, but at a much slower pace. With the <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/09/05/judges-mauricio-macri-administration-kirchnerite-corruption-cristina-kirchner-argentina-fernandez-election-courts">changing political climate</a>, he was told last month by his superiors that this investigation should come out of its slumber.</p> <h2><strong>The documentary</strong></h2> <p>On January 1st, Netflix launched the documentary <em>Nisman. The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy</em>, made by English filmmaker Justin Webster. Divided into six episodes, the documentary shows previously unpublished archival material and manages to put Stiuso in front of the camera.</p> <p>The documentary &#8211; which does not take sides on any of the hypotheses &#8211; was celebrated on both sides of the political spectrum.</p> <p>&#8220;It&#8217;s a good documentary that brings back to the stage an issue that is not resolved by the Argentine justice system,&#8221; Daniel Lipovetzky, a provincial lawmaker for PRO, told <em>The Essential</em>. Lipovetzky was an ally of Macri throughout his term, and promoted a law to judge Iranian suspects in absentia during his term.</p> <p>&#8220;I am convinced that Nisman was killed. What the Argentine courts have to say is who is responsible. It is a mistake of Kirchnerism to discard the hypothesis of murder. This could have been a murder to harm that government,&#8221; Lipovetzky added.</p> <p>&#8220;The documentary is very objective and helps clarify something that goes beyond Nisman&#8217;s death: the whole AMIA case has been manipulated by national and foreign intelligence services,&#8221; says Leopoldo Moreau, national lawmaker for the <em>Frente de Todos</em>. Moreau, an ally of Fernández de Kirchner, is one of the congresspeople  on the bicameral intelligence committee.</p> <p>&#8220;The documentary shows that Stiuso manipulated Nisman&#8217;s complaint and refused to give him fresh information,&#8221; Moreau says.</p> <p>On Saturday, five years after Nisman&#8217;s death, a demonstration will be held in his honor, which was promoted by <em>Juntos por el Cambio</em>, the front that Macri leads. According to <a href="https://www.pagina12.com.ar/242015-la-familia-la-daia-la-amia-y-la-asociacion-de-fiscales-se-ba">Página/12</a>, neither Nisman’s family nor the Public Prosecutors Association will participate in the tribute.</p> <p>

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Luciana Bertoia

Luciana Bertoia is a journalist specialized in judicial, political and human rights issues. She has published in Ámbito Financiero, Página/12, the Buenos Aires Herald and the International Justice Tribune.