OPINION

Opinion: Argentina and the alleged coverup by the president – Why we’re not surprised

  • People holding a sign that reads in Spanish "We are all Nisman," protest the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015. Nisman who accused the government of secret deals with Iran over an investigation into a 1994 Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association community center terrorist attack, was found dead with a gunshot wound, at his apartment early Monday. Nisman was due to participate in a closed-door session with Congress Monday over his claim last week that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman covered up a deal with Iran. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

    People holding a sign that reads in Spanish "We are all Nisman," protest the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015. Nisman who accused the government of secret deals with Iran over an investigation into a 1994 Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association community center terrorist attack, was found dead with a gunshot wound, at his apartment early Monday. Nisman was due to participate in a closed-door session with Congress Monday over his claim last week that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman covered up a deal with Iran. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

  • Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez signals to supporters during an event announcing new government projects at the government palace Casa Rosada, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

    Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez signals to supporters during an event announcing new government projects at the government palace Casa Rosada, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In January 2013, when Argentina’s Foreign Minister Hector Timmerman announced a deal to form a truth commission with Iran to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) center that killed 85 people, it was hard not be suspicious. If the mere fact that by that time, almost 19 years after the country’s worst terrorist act in history, prosecutors still had failed produce a conviction didn’t raise eyebrows, then the Argentine government’s bizarre plan to form a truth commission with the government charged with financing and supporting the attack (which included the Iran’s defense minister) seemed deeply troubling.

This case and the government’s response to the march on Wednesday have exposed what for almost a decade has been at risk under this government, judicial independence and the rule of law.   

- Christopher Sabatini

When Argentina’s lead prosecutor in the case, Alberto Nisman, announced in January this year that his investigation had implicated President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Timmerman in the deal to cover up Iran’s involvement in the plot in exchange for market access for Argentine exports the charges did not seem far fetched. After all, what serious government would establish a truth commission with the participation of the accused?  

Sadly, only a few decades ago, Argentina had set the world standard for truth commissions in the trials that prosecuted the military for the human rights abuses committed during its reign from 1976 to 1983 that claimed more than 9,000 lives. The investigation into the junta’s grisly tactics and toll inspired the rallying cries worldwide of those who fight against impunity for human rights abuses, the report Nunca Mas (Never Again).  

But one day before Nisman, the prosecutor, was supposed to present his charges before Congress, he was found dead in his apartment from a gunshot wound to his head. 

If Nisman’s death was a unexpected political bombshell, the government’s response to it was predictable: angry, erratic and paranoid. First, President Fernandez de Kirchner and many of her top officials called it a suicide; then the President and her associates called it a murder and implicated her political enemies including in one moment accusing – of course! – the U.S.; and later pointing the finger at the prosecutor’s assistant and the former head of the intelligence agency, though with no evidence. 

This has been the way the government has responded to all its critics, wrapping itself in victimhood and maligning the motives of anyone who dared question it. Only this time the government was taking on not only a former prosecutor and his allies – along with longstanding critics of the harebrained scheme of involving the Iranians in the first place – but the entire judicial system. 

Not unexpectedly, the Argentinean-Iranian commission never produced anything other than criticism from the families of the victims and incredulousness from jurists and human rights activists  (It supposedly also provoked a split within Timmerman’s family.) Two years later the commission has not only failed to produce any convictions, it’s also failed to produce any new information or insight into the AMIA tragedy.   

Admittedly, the investigation Nisman was planning to present the day after his death was weak. The document – which relies on intercepted communications between government officials –does not contain actual e-mails or conversations from Timmerman or the President actually proposing or discussing the plan. Rather, the allegations rely on lower level officials indirectly or directly referring to the principals and the plans. And Interpol has stated that Timmerman never requested to have the charges against Iranian officials--which also included the former Iranian cultural attache in Buenos, Mohsen Rabbani, and former Minister of Intelligence Ali Fallahian, lifted — one of the central allegations of the Nisman report.  

Nevertheless, despite the weakness of the case, late last week the new prosector, Gerardo Pollicita,decided to go forward with the 289-page criminal complaint, asking a judge to investigate the President. Pollicita also has plans to charge Timmerman and other members of the government. The reaction from the government will likely be the same as always, blame, smear and attack. 

In fact, a turning point will come February 18th when Argentina’s prosecutors are planning to join a march in opposition to the Fernandez de Kirchner government. Predictably, the government has denounced the participation of justice officials, calling it, in its typically hyperbolic language, a judicial coup. Whatever the facts of the 1994 bombing, the deal with Iran and Nisman’s death, the most serious victim will be the truth. 

After eighteen years, the families of the 85 victims still have no answers, but worse, the case has now become caught up in the usual paranoid antics of the Fernandez de Kirchner government. This case and the government’s response to the march on Wednesday have exposed what for almost a decade has been at risk under this government, judicial independence and the rule of law.  

Never again?   Unfortunately, again has arrived.

Christopher Sabatini is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and in May this year is launching a new website dedicated to opinion and analysis in the Americas, www.LatinAmericaGoesGlobal.org

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