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January 18, 2023 12:08 pm
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A Prosecutor Was Murdered for Investigating Iran and Argentinian Corruption

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avatar by Toby Dershowitz

Opinion

Argentine Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman was murdered in January 2015. Photo: Reuters / Marcos Brindicci.

Argentina has “serious corruption problems,” according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Will this regrettable condition continue to conceal the truth behind the identity of those who murdered Alberto Nisman eight years ago this week?

Formally, Argentina is still looking into the suspicious death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who investigated the country’s deadliest terrorist attack ever — the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which took 85 lives and injured hundreds more. Sordid politics and some members of the country’s judiciary might still prevent a formal determination of what the nation’s Gendarmerie police concluded in 2018 and the Federal Court of Buenos Aires affirmed: that Nisman’s murder was due to his AMIA investigation, and that it was a “direct consequence” of his accusation that then-President Cristina Kirchner sought to absolve Iran of its role in the bombing in return for economic benefits for her country.

Nisman was found dead with a bullet in his head on January 18, 2015, hours before he was to present his findings that Kirchner and a dozen of her associates sought to cover up Iran’s role in the AMIA bombing. Debunking Kirchner’s allegation that Nisman had committed suicide, there was no gun powder residue on his hands.

To date, only Diego Lagomarsino, Nisman’s computer consultant, has been implicated as an accessory to murder in Nisman’s death. While Nisman himself owned a gun for protection, Lagomarsino claimed that Nisman had asked to borrow his gun. Was that part of Kirchner’s debunked suicide story, which she promptly announced after he was found dead and before any investigation had been conducted?

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Nisman was well aware of the threats he faced while undertaking the dual investigations into the bombing and the alleged attempt to whitewash Iran’s role. He made public and filed formal complaints about some of the threats to his life and to his family. The threats were ugly. But he was determined to present what he learned from 40,000 wiretaps, legally obtained, which led him to present a 300-page complaint with Federal Judge Ariel Lijo on the Wednesday before he was found dead and about which he had planned to brief the Congress the next Monday.

Nisman had shared the essence of his findings with reporters and others when he filed the complaint. Kirchner must have known he had presented his initial findings to Judge Lijo. It was no secret.

Days after Nisman was found dead, Kirchner disbanded the Secretariat of Intelligence, known as the SIDE, which she believed had cooperated with Nisman in his investigation against her. A new intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) was set up, headed by her ally Juan Martin Mena, who today is vice minister of justice. 

Even after his death, when opponents of Nisman wanted to dissuade prosecutors and judges from looking too deeply into those crimes, they would often engage in not-so-subtle threats: one of Nisman’s opponnents, for example, posted an image of the person being threatened next to a picture of Nisman and asked if he wanted to face the same fate that had befallen Nisman. “Meet the next Nisman.”

In another example, the daughter of a prosecutor looking into allegations of Kirchner money-laundering, announced that neither her father nor any family members had any intention of committing suicide, signaling that if any of them were found dead, it would not be by their own hands.

In 2016, activist Fernando Esteche — one of those implicated along with Kirchner in the attempted cover up of Iran’s involvement in the AMIA bombing — proclaimed that any judge seeking to imprison Kirchner “could be found dead.”

In December 2016, Eduardo Taiano received threats in connection with his role as head prosecutor investigating Nisman’s death. The messages threatened “to do the same thing to him and his son Federico that was done to Nisman.”

In 2022, an Argentine court found Kirchner guilty of fraud during her tenure as president, for directing millions of dollars in taxpayer money to a family friend. A panel of judges sentenced her to six years in prison and banned her from ever holding public office. The prosecutor in the case, Diego Luciani, called the case “one of the most extraordinary corruption schemes” in Argentine history. Kirchner has temporary immunity and will be able to remain free due to her current role as a vice president, and can appeal the verdict.

Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez shocked the country when he smugly sent a thinly veiled threat to Luciani as that case was proceeding. “Nisman committed suicide; I hope that the prosecutor Luciani does not do something similar.” Fernandez knows well that Nisman did not commit suicide. He had himself said before becoming president that even Kirchner knew Nisman had not killed himself. His point to Luciani was crystal clear. What was done to Nisman could be done to him.

There are national security implications for Argentina and for the world in the attempts to cover up Nisman’s murder. It was Nisman’s granular reports that provided a roadmap for law enforcement on how the Islamic Republic of Iran had penetrated, recruited, radicalized, financed, and executed terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.

His investigation exposed how Iran had created terrorist networks and sleeper cells — to be deployed at the time of its choice — throughout Latin America, including in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname. The network also extended to parts of Europe, including Germany. His reports showed how Iran uses its embassy pouches, diplomatic cover, illicit financing, front companies, and other mechanisms operated out of the line of sight to carry out terrorist activities.

Iranian officials plotted the AMIA bombing in Mashad, Iran, on August 14, 1993. Many of them plotted terrorist attacks both before and after the AMIA bombing. Argentina maintains warrants for their arrest. Some of them have Interpol red notices, which seek the arrest of wanted individuals. Two of the Iranian officials implicated in planning the AMIA bombing serve in President Ibrahim Raisi’s cabinet today.

In a surreal twist, a Boeing 747 cargo plane, sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury for ferrying weapons from Iran to Syria, is sitting on a Buenos Aires tarmac. The Iranian-owned plane was sold to Venezuela’s flagship carrier, Conviasa Airlines. It landed in Buenos Aires on June 6, 2022. Rather than carrying a small crew of four or five needed to offload automotive parts, 19 “crew members” were on the plane, including Gholamreza Ghassemi, a pilot from the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. He was one of for Iranians on the plane. All the “crew members” were eventually released.

While the cargo plane’s exact mission has yet to be determined, one thing is clear. Iran and its proxies are not done with seeking to carry out nefarious, dangerous activities in our own backyard.

While Nisman is no longer physically with us, the lessons of his investigation, his murder, and its coverup remain. We ignore them at our peril.

Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the non-partisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @tobydersh

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