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Argentina: Fernández flips on prosecutor's 'suicide'

Argentine federal prosecutor Natalio Alberto Nisman was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment late on Jan. 18 with a gunshot wound to his head. Nisman had filed a 289-page criminal complaint on Jan. 14 charging that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and eight others, including two Iranians, had acted to cover up the alleged role of the Iranian government in the July 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires. The bombing, which left 85 dead and some 300 injured, is considered the deadliest anti-Semitic attack carried out anywhere since World War II. Nisman's death came the day before he was to testify to the National Congress about the charges.

Nisman's body was found in his locked apartment by his mother and agents from his 10-member security detail after the prosecutor failed to answer phone calls; he was lying next to the .22-caliber handgun used to shoot him. Investigators initially suggested suicide, as did President Fernández in a Facebook posting on Jan. 20. But evidence emerged later that undercut the suicide hypothesis: Nisman had not appeared suicidal; there was no note; gunpowder traces weren't detected on Nisman's hands; a locksmith disputed claims that two entrances to the apartment were locked; and a previously unnoticed third entrance was discovered. Reversing her earlier position, Fernández wrote on Jan. 22 that the prosecutor had probably been murdered. (New York Times, Jan. 22, Jan. 23InfoBAE, Jan. 22)

In October 2006 Nisman—who was appointed to head the AMIA inquiry by former president Néstor Kirchner, Fernández's late husband—formally charged the Lebanese organization Hezbollah with carrying out the AMIA bombing and the Iranian government with ordering it. In January 2013 Argentina and Iran signed an agreement for a joint investigation into the attack. Nisman opposed the deal, as did Jewish community leaders, who felt this would impede prosecution of the Iranian suspects. An Argentine appeals court ruled the agreement unconstitutional on May 15, 2014, although the government has appealed the decision.

In his Jan. 14 complaint, based in part on intercepted phone calls, Nisman accused the presidency and people close to Fernández of working to negate the charges against Iran in exchange for trade deals with Iran. In addition to President Fernández and Foreign Minister Timerman, Nisman named legislative deputy Andrés "Cuervo" Larroque; Luis D'Elía, a leader in the leftist Federation of Argentine Workers (CTA) and the piquetero ("picketer") unemployed movement who is close to the government; Fernando Esteche, the leader of the far-left group Quebracho; Héctor Yrimia, a former prosecutor in the AMIA case; Mohsen Rabbani, a former cultural attaché to the Iranian embassy suspected of masterminding the bombing; and Jorge "Yussuf" Khalil, an Iranian community leader in Buenos Aires. The complaint included transcripts of phone conversations between D'Elía and Khalil. (Todo Noticias, Argentina, Jan. 15, Jan. 23NYT, Jan. 22, from correspondents)

Fernández supporters noted that Nisman had close relations with the US embassy in Buenos Aires, according to US diplomatic cables released by the Wikileaks group in 2010, and that he followed advice from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Justice Department's Office of International Affairs (OIA). It seems that Nisman regularly notified the embassy in advance about his legal moves. A confidential diplomatic cable dated May 19, 2009, notes that Nisman advised the embassy of his request for the indictment of a new AMIA suspect the day before he submitted the request to the judge in the case, Rodolfo Canicoba Corra. (Buenos Aires Herald, Jan. 16)

In related news, at least 10 people were injured the night of Jan. 18-19 when a crowd chanting anti-Semitic slogans attacked a hostel in Lago Puelo in the southern province of Chubut, beating and robbing Israeli tourists. The hostel's owner, Sergio Polak, said the crowd also hurled rocks and Molotov bombs and fired shots. Attacks on the hostel "started in March or April last year," he said. "We connect it with the campaign going on for a while on the subject of Israeli tourism. They say [the guests] are Israeli soldiers." The attack reportedly went on for hours because the local police didn't have enough agents on hand. There were about 10 assailants, identified as neighbors of the hostel. Initially no one was arrested, but a local radio station reported later that the attackers were "at the disposition of justice." (La Nación, Argentina, Jan. 21, from Agencia DyN)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, January 25.

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