BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (JTA) – An extraordinary series of developments are bringing new hope – and new heartbreak – to the family and colleagues of Alberto Nisman, the Argentine federal prosecutor who was found dead last year just days after accusing then-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of covering up Iran’s role in the 1994 bombing of this city’s AMIA Jewish centre.
Fourteen months after Nisman was found dead in his apartment with a single bullet in the head, no autopsy results have been released and no official cause of death has been determined.
But on Feb. 29, Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, Argentina’s former head of intelligence operations, who has been living in exile in the United States for the past year, delivered bombshell testimony here, accusing Kirchner of ordering a hit on Nisman and seeking to portray his death as a suicide.
“They killed Nisman because of the work he was doing,” Stiuso said in testimony lasting 17 uninterrupted hours, according to numerous media reports.
“The author of all this madness was that woman, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner,” he said. “When the madness of the former president became explicit, I had to take my family and move.”
Stiuso wasn’t done. Referring to Iran, he said, “When you have these people as your enemy, there’s no point in having bodyguards.”
At the time of his death, Nisman, 51, had been under guard by a contingent of officers from the Argentine Federal Police. Their absence from his residence on the night of Jan. 18, 2015 has yet to be explained.
Hours after Stiuso finished testifying, the presiding judge, Fabiana Palmaghini, who took charge of the probe in December, excused herself from further handling the case. In a document over 30 pages long that she managed to produce in a matter of hours, Palmaghini charged Viviana Fein, the investigator of Nisman’s death, with ignoring testimony Stiuso provided in 2015 in which he allegedly said Nisman was killed. Hours after Nisman’s death was discovered, and for no known reasons, Fein announced she was investigating it as a suicide.
The developments come exactly 100 days into Mauricio Macri’s term as president, and some see them as part of his campaign to convince world leaders he can restore Argentina’s global standing. Since he took office in December, he has been visited in Buenos Aires by the leaders of France and Italy. And on Wednesday U.S. President Barack Obama will arrive, accompanied by 400 American business leaders, on the first state visit to Argentina by a U.S. president in 27 years.
On Monday, at a news conference held in anticipation of Obama’s visit, Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra described the government’s task as “inserting Argentina in the world” – as if the Kirchner years had caused it to fall off the planet.
Macri’s presidency began with a flourish, annulling what was left of Kirchner’s pact to jointly investigate the AMIA bombing with Iran. Nisman had accused Tehran of masterminding the attack and produced evidence that led Interpol to issue extradition requests against senior Iranian officials, including a former foreign minister.
Last week, appearing before the first meeting of the World Jewish Congress to be held in Latin America, Macri promised to advance the investigation and lamented the harm done to Argentina’s international reputation by the lack of progress in the AMIA probe and the scandal surrounding Nisman’s death.
“But now we are determined to bring what happened to light,” Macri told The Associated Press.
Nisman had devoted the last decade of his life to investigating the AMIA bombing, which left 85 dead and hundreds wounded. Four days before his death, he charged Kirchner with attempting to cover up Tehran’s role.
Last week, Daniel Berliner, the director of Argentina’s Jewish news service, Agencia Judía de Noticias, released what he claims is the last recording of Nisman’s voice. In a telephone call conducted two days before he was found dead, Nisman spoke with eerie clarity.
“I knew that no matter what, I had to do this,” Nisman said. “I couldn’t keep this evidence to myself either for me or for the country. And well, I’ll end up as I end up. As long as the truth is known.”
Formally, Nisman’s death is still considered a “suspicious death” and is being handled by a lower court. On Friday, in small, stuffy chambers on the fifth floor of the Criminal Court building in downtown Buenos Aires, a panel of three judges heard arguments about the future handling of the case.
The state, which under Kirchner wanted the investigation kept in lower court, under Macri has joined Nisman’s family in requesting its reclassification as a possible homicide and federal crime.
“Federal Prosecutor Natalio Alberto Nisman was assassinated so as to impede the progress of his work on behalf of the state!” thundered Pablo Lanusse, a towering legal figure in Argentina who is representing Nisman’s mother, Sara Garfunkel.
The intense, soft-spoken attorney Manuel Romero Victorica, acting on behalf of Nisman’s former wife and his daughters, quietly read aloud one of the numerous threats emailed to Nisman in his last frenzied months of work: “We will make true our promise to kill you and your family, but before that, we will make you look like shit in public and in the media. We’ve already managed to separate you from the AMIA case and we’ve gotten Argentina a deal with Iran without you.”
Sandra Arroyo Salgado, Nisman’s former wife and herself a judge, broke down in tears as she described her “dual role” as the mother of her daughters and as a judicial figure in her own right.
“We have been through a very complicated year of malevolence and fear,” she declared, describing how she and her daughters have been publicly smeared. “When they talk about ‘Nisman’s little ex-wifey,’ that’s me. How can I tell my daughter that when she hears threats she shouldn’t be afraid?”
The panel is scheduled to decide whether the Nisman case will be transferred to a federal court on Wednesday, the day of Obama’s arrival.