- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

BUENOS AIRES | With a spike in violent crime, inflation close to 30 percent and a vice president under indictment, Argentines aren’t easily rattled these days. But the death of a well-known prosecutor — days after he accused President Cristina Fernandez of an “alliance with terrorists” — still managed to shock the nation, especially since it came just a day before Alberto Nisman’s highly anticipated testimony before a congressional panel.

The fallout from the death continued to roil the capital a day after Mr. Nisman’s body was found Monday morning in his locked apartment. An autopsy suggests the 51-year-old had shot himself with a .22-caliber handgun, though investigators are not ruling out a “forced suicide.” A prominent commentator for the “La Nacion” daily, who said he had spoken with the “enthusiastic” prosecutor two days before he announced his explosive allegations, similarly suspects foul play.

“I did not see a suicidal man,” Joaquin Morales Sola told The Washington Times.

Appointed as a special prosecutor by Ms. Fernandez’s late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, Mr. Nisman for 10 years had been investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center. In 1996 he had formally accused Iran of having hired the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah to carry out the attack that killed 85. In 2006, an Argentine judge accepted the prosecutor’s request to order the arrest of a former Iranian president, foreign minister and other officials. Interpol later put most of them on its most-wanted list.

But the Fernandez government angered Jewish leaders here when it announced in 2013 that Argentina and Iran would jointly oversee the investigation moving forward. Last week Mr. Nisman went public with charges that Ms. Fernandez had essentially signed on to a cover-up with the Islamic Republic’s involvement in exchange for a new oil trade deal — a charged that infuriated the president.

By the time Mr. Nisman was supposed to expand on his accusations at a Monday hearing of the House of Deputy’s Criminal Law Committee, however, the prosecutor was dead. Almost immediately, thousands of citizens poured into the capital’s mystical Plaza de Mayo, banging pots and pans and shouting “Asesina!” (“Murderer!”) in reference to Ms. Fernandez. Many of the protesters carried signs reading “Yo soy Nisman” (“I am Nisman“), an allusion to the “Je suis Charlie” slogan sparked by the terrorist attack on a French satiric magazine.

Questions abound about exactly what happened Monday morning.

Prosecutor Viviana Fein, who is leading the investigation, said Tuesday that an electronic scanning test found no gunpowder residue on Mr. Nisman’s hand, The Associated Press reported. Speaking to Radio Mitre, Ms. Fein said the result of the initial test “was not an unexpected result” because of the small caliber of the weapon.

The gun belonged to a colleague of the prosecutor, she said, and no suicide note was found. Colleagues said they’d seen no sign he planned to kill himself.

The idea that the prosecutor took his own life strikes many here as incredible.

“This is a tragic day for me, and it has to be for all Argentines,” said Ana Bratanich, a 58-year-old university professor. “This was not a suicide; they killed him.”

Sixty-one-year-old retired teacher Monica Tirone said she had traveled 60 miles to Buenos Aires because the prosecutor’s death reminded her of the worst days of Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship. In the square where the “Mothers of Plaza de Mayo” famously stood up to the military junta, Ms. Tirone held a sign proclaiming Mr. Nisman a “national martyr.”

In New York, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Jewish JTA news service, “The idea of suicide, I think, is nonsense.”

‘Institutional emergency’

Near the Plaza de Mayo and opposite the Casa Rosada — Argentina’s version of the White House — police blocked off the headquarters of the Intelligence Secretariat, whose “use and abuse” by political forces may well be linked to the Nisman incident, Mr. Morales Sola noted. But the main fallout of what opposition lawmaker Graciela Camano called an “institutional emergency” is likely to hit Ms. Fernandez, not the country’s spy agency.

The term-limited president, already a lame duck, is set to leave office in December. But her political allies must win the Oct. 25 general election to shield her from likely prosecution over a myriad of corruption allegations. A revised criminal code pushed through Congress will likely allow her Front for Victory to fill the judiciary with pro-government lawmen. But the president last year failed in a seven-month battle to depose federal prosecutor Jose Maria Campagnoli, who is investigating a construction tycoon with close ties to Ms. Kirchner and her late husband.

“The prosecutors are under threat,” Carlos Donoso Castex, the head of the local Association of Prosecutors, warned on TN television as he demanded judicial independence and protection.

While the Campagnoli case warranted widespread coverage, its impact pales in comparison with the potential fallout from Mr. Nisman’s death. In a country marked by the memory of the military junta’s brutality, society is “especially sensitive to death,” said Mr. Morales Sola, the commentator.

“A death, more than anything, can completely change the political landscape,” and the incident will severely damage Ms. Fernandez, he added.

The usually loquacious president, meanwhile, has remained mum except for a largely self-congratulatory 2,000-word Facebook note, in which she said that any suicide provokes “astonishment” and “questions.” Ms. Fernandez used the letter to defend herself against Mr. Nisman’s accusations about the Iranian bombing cover-up, but failed to so much as extend her condolences to the prosecutor’s family.

Argentina’s Jewish community voiced concerns that the Nisman affair might further delay the original AMIA investigation — still unresolved more than 20 years after the bombing — and Israel’s Foreign Ministry expressed “deep sorrow” over the prosecutor’s death.

Nisman, a courageous, venerable jurist who fought intrepidly for justice, acted with determination to expose the identities of the terrorists and their dispatchers,” a ministry statement said.

Gustavo Montero, a 27-year-old programmer who protested Monday night at the Plaza de Mayo, said it marked a “lack of respect” toward the victims’ families still waiting for justice.

“Here is a case where many people died,” Mr. Montero said. “The people have to stand up. I’ve come to demand democracy.”

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