The mysterious ‘martyrdom’ of Alberto Nisman

There’s more to Argentinean prosecutor’s ‘martyrdom’ than meets the eye.

A woman takes part in a demonstration in Buenos Aires
A woman holds a sign that reads 'justice' and an image of prosecutor Alberto Nisman [REUTERS]

Last week, Argentina had its very own #JeSuisCharlie moment, with the hashtag #YoSoyNisman (“I am Nisman”) proliferating across city squares and social media.

The subject of digitised solidarity in this case was Alberto Nisman, an Argentinean special prosecutor found dead in his home on January 18 in what was either a suicide or a cover-up made to look like one.

Nisman had been set to speak to Congress the following day to outline his latest complaints regarding the alleged complicity of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and other officials in covering up the also alleged complicity of Iran in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires. The attack killed 85 people.

The case against Iran – which has been repeated so unceasingly that the allegations are often passed off as fact – goes something like this: As part of its ongoing hobby as a US-designated “state sponsor of terrorism”, the Islamic republic conspired with Lebanon’s Hezbollah to deal a blow to the Argentine Jewish community.

The plot was hatched in the Tri-Border Area between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, whose sizable Arab/Muslim population has served as a convenient scapegoat for both the AMIA bombing and the 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.

Iran was angry, so the story goes, over suspended nuclear technology contracts with Argentina and other matters, and Hezbollah – always eager to do the bidding of its Iranian sponsor – was also in retaliatory mode due to the killing and kidnapping programme then under way as part of Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon.

Examining the ‘evidence’

Nisman took over in 2005 as special prosecutor in Argentina’s AMIA probe and spent the remainder of his life defending this version of events.

Predictably, some in the Israeli media took advantage of the recent opportunity to crown him a “martyr in the fight for justice”.

This is not, of course, to exempt the Iranians or anyone else from suspicion, but rather to emphasise that spontaneous guilty verdicts should also arouse suspicion.

But there’s more to this “martyrdom” case than meets the eye. For starters, it’s difficult to claim you’re working for justice when you do things like pinpoint as the AMIA attack vehicle a white Renault van that one out of approximately 200 witnesses to the explosion claims to have seen at the crime scene.

The alleged smoking gun? Iran’s former cultural attache in Buenos Aires once reportedly looked at the same kind of vehicle at a car dealership.

Justice becomes even more elusive when this one witness fails to cooperate sufficiently in identifying photographs of the alleged bomber. The Israeli Mossad, on the other hand, is far more cooperative.

As award-winning investigative historian Gareth Porter documented in a 2008 report for The Nation, this is the sort of ludicrously flimsy “evidence” continuously put forth by the Argentinean prosecutorial team. Their approach was also cast into doubt by an on-scene assessment by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms suggesting that the bomb had been set off within the AMIA building itself.

Furthermore, as Porter notes, Argentinean-Iranian negotiations over nuclear contracts continued until 1995 – ie, well after the AMIA affair – which sort of pulls the rug out from under the whole retaliation argument. It does, however, raise the issue of which international entities might wish to see such negotiations permanently derailed.

When I myself visited the Tri-Border Area in 2013, a Paraguayan officer in a special forces unit created specifically to investigate the AMIA allegations informed me that no evidence of area terrorist cells had thus far turned up. This was not, he said, for a lack of effort on the part of visiting US intelligence personnel.

A Jerusalem Post article by Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, coauthor of “Spies Against Armaggedon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars”, confirms that Nisman “was supported by the US and Israeli intelligence communities, which provided him with some incriminating intercepted conversations and additional materials”.

Melman nonetheless presents as fact Nisman’s contention that “the most senior Iranian leadership” and Hezbollah were behind the Argentina attacks.

Argentina to dissolve intelligence agency

One might have expected a bit less credulity from the coauthor of a book that extensively – and often candidly – details the deception and trickery of Israel’s intelligence outfits.

Spontaneous verdicts

As Argentina now moves on to investigating the demise of its famed investigator, Melman argues that the “principal” unanswered question is this: “Did Nisman really commit suicide or was he murdered and, if so as many believe, on whose orders – [Fernandez de] Kirchner, [Iran’s Ali] Khamenei or both?”

Obviously, this indictment-disguised-as-a-question doesn’t leave much room for debate.

As usual, other mainstream media have also jumped at the chance to stick it to Iran. Over at The Daily Beast, for example, an essay originally titled “Has Iran resumed global assassinations?” was subsequently toned down to the slightly less sensational: “Did Iran murder Argentina’s crusading prosecutor Alberto Nisman?”

In an age in which many folks get their news from headlines, propaganda-titles can go a long way.

This is not, of course, to exempt the Iranians or anyone else from suspicion, but rather to emphasise that spontaneous guilty verdicts should also arouse suspicion.

Adding to the intrigue of the Nisman case, Fernandez now has announced plans to dissolve Argentina’s national intelligence agency, while the journalist who broke the story of the prosecutor’s death has fled to Israel, citing security threats.

It remains to be seen whether Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the aftermath of the Paris attacks urged French Jews to migrate to Israel en masse, will glom onto this journalist as an example for Jews worldwide.

Regardless, the ever-accumulating accusations against Iran will continue to distract from Israel’s own homicidal manoeuvres – which are probably a better place to start talking about “martyr[s] in the fight for justice”.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.