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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-01-2020 10:36

The return of Alberto Nisman

If nothing else, this unhappy business has confirmed that, in Argentina, important criminal cases which elsewhere would be solved fairly quickly tend to get more and more mysterious as time goes by.

Despite all the efforts of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her acolytes to drive it away, the ghost of the late special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead in his bathroom five years ago today, continues to hover over the land, pointing its accusing finger directly at them. In recent weeks, it has been making its disturbing presence felt even more strongly than before thanks to a Netflix documentary on the still murky affair and Donald Trump’s willingness to give Iran’s clerical regime a taste of its own medicine by having one of its top members killed while stirring things up in neighbouring Iraq.

Trump is also encouraging street protests in Iran by assuring those who are brave enough to defy their country’s grim Islamist rulers that the US is on their side. In response, the Iranians have let it be known that they are speeding up their nuclear programme which, as far as the North Americans and Israelis are concerned, is a life-and-death issue; they would rather go to war than allow individuals who tell the world they want to annihilate “the Zionist entity” for sound Koranic reasons to get their hands on weapons which would enable them to do a huge amount of damage.

Exactly how Nisman died remains an open question. Opinions on the matter reflect the political preferences of those who offer them. Friends of Cristina – among them President Alberto Fernández in his current incarnation and his Security Minister, the anthropologist Sabina Frederic – say he committed suicide. Others insist he was murdered; some, but not all, of these think Cristina must have given his killers the go-ahead.

Both sides can dredge up circumstantial evidence to support their conclusions. Those who believe he was murdered can point out that before he met his end, Nisman looked anything but suicidal, and people associated with Cristina certainly had many good reasons to want to see him silenced for good. After all, he had charged them with colluding with Iran’s theocratic regime in an attempt to cover up the world’s most notorious exporter of terrorism’s role in blowing up the AMIA Jewish community centre building in July 1994, killing 85 people, presumably in exchange for commercial advantages of the kind they would relish or, perhaps, to curry favour with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who numbered the ayatollahs among his friends.

It would seem that the immediate perpetrators belonged to Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored organisation whose leader Hassan Nasrallah once said he would like all Jews to gather in one place “so we would not have to go to the ends of the earth to kill them.” In Frederic’s view, Hezbollah is not Argentina’s problem.

For their part, defenders of Cristina and members of her entourage make much of Nisman’s louche private life in order to paint him as a devious character and suggest that just before a planned meeting with a congressional committee he suddenly realised the case he had built up was based on a load of nonsense so, panic-stricken by the humiliation that surely awaited him, he then decided to shoot himself. This may strike those with no axe to grind as improbable, but Cristina’s backers are sticking to it.

If nothing else, this unhappy business has confirmed that, in Argentina, important criminal cases which elsewhere would be solved fairly quickly tend to get more and more mysterious as time goes by. Many people are determined to ensure they do. Out of instinct or by design, whenever something happens that could make life harder for a leading politician, bureaucrat or magnate, they do their best to get rid of information they could put them in a tough spot.

As soon as Nisman’s dead body was discovered by his mother, the scene of what looked like a crime was invaded by a large number of people who wandered back and forth, touching whatever objects were within reach, and by so doing removing clues a proper investigative team could have found useful. Much the same happened in January 1997 when the journalist and photographer José Luis Cabezas was murdered in Pinamar after taking a photo of Alfredo Yabrán, a multimillionaire crony of the then-president Carlos Menem, who greatly disliked the limelight; instead of sealing off the place where the body was found until experts in such matters could go over it in the lookout for clues, the police and others trampled all over it. They may have had no idea as to who might be involved, but it would appear that many sensed it would be in their interest to make it harder to get at them.

Unluckily for President Fernández and Cristina, the latter’s attempt to cosy up to Iran has not been forgotten by the people who are in charge of US foreign policy. Unlike Barack Obama, who – with the approval of the Europeans, Russians and Chinese – tried to get the Iranian theocrats to moderate their behaviour by letting them have access to about US$150 billion in frozen assets, Trump puts his faith in military force. That is why, as well as taking a wreckingball to their economy, he had general Qassem Soleimani, by many accounts the second most powerful man in the country, killed in a drone strike when he was approaching Baghdad airport. For Trump and his advisers, Soleimani was just another high-profile terrorist like the late Osama Bin Laden and the equally late “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a thug responsible for a huge number of deaths in the Middle East, who deserved to be treated as such. By the same logic, all members of the Iranian regime, from the “supreme leader,” the octogenarian Ali Khamenei, down, are legitimate targets. Not surprisingly, they are now feeling jittery.

With what could well be a showdown approaching, Trump, who tends to take a personal view of things, will be listening carefully to what other foreign leaders say. Should any appear to sympathise with the Iranians, seeing them as victims of Trumpian jingoism, they will be given a black mark. In Argentina’s case, the consequences would be unfortunate. The Trump administration has made it clear that, though it would have preferred to see Mauricio Macri continue in office, it is prepared to give Fernández the backing he sorely needs in financial circles and, needless to say, the International Monetary Fund. Were Cristina to start going on about the merits of her attempt to get on good terms with the ayatollahs, this helpful arrangement would in all probability come unstuck.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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