What's at stake in the mysterious death of an Argentine prosecutor?

Alberto Nisman was found dead Sunday. He was due to present evidence on an alleged cover-up by Argentina's president over the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center, and Argentines say they won't settle for 'easy' answers.

Rodrigo Abd/AP
People holding a sign that reads in Spanish 'We are all Nisman,' protest the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015. Nisman who accused the government of secret deals with Iran over an investigation into a 1994 Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association community center terrorist attack, was found dead with a gunshot wound, at his apartment early Monday. Nisman was due to participate in a closed-door session with Congress Monday over his claim last week that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman covered up a deal with Iran.

The mysterious death of a federal prosecutor who accused President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of an international conspiracy has placed Argentina’s political elite under a global microscope.

Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor, was due to present evidence to Congress Monday that alleged President Kirchner sought to cover up Iranian involvement in a 1994 suicide car bombing at a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in which 85 people died. He was found dead Sunday on the floor of his en suite bathroom. A borrowed Bersa pistol and an empty bullet cartridge lay next to his body.

The government said it was probing Mr. Nisman’s death amid scattered protests in the capital and calls from political figures in Argentina and abroad for a thorough and transparent investigation. Argentina has a long history of unsolved national scandals, including a similar bombing in 1992 and a fatal train crash in 2012. Analysts say its failure to account properly for these and other incidents has undermined public trust in politics and public institutions. 

“Society is increasingly skeptical, increasingly estranged. Public institutions are in a frank decline,” says Carlos Germano, a political analyst in Buenos Aires.

Referring to the credibility of public institutions here, Luis Czyzewski — whose daughter died in the 1994 bombing — says the suspicion looming over Nisman’s death will cause "enormous damage to the country that will be difficult to reverse."

Government officials, including Kirchner, have been quick to point to suicide. In a letter she posted on Facebook late Monday night, she asked: “What was it that led him to take his life?”

Investigators have said that Nisman was shot in the head by a single bullet and that no one else was involved. But Viviana Fein, the prosecutor leading the probe, said she is pursuing the theory that Nisman was threatened to such an extent that he was forced to kill himself.

The administration has suggested Nisman was the victim of a plot, perhaps including embittered former intelligence officials and Argentina's news media. On Tuesday, Ms. Fein said she was waiting to see evidence gathered by police from Nisman’s cell phone.

Argentina's 'darkest' moment?

A decade ago, Nisman was assigned to investigate the mysterious 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center. He pointed the finger at Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group based in Lebanon, with logistical support from Iran. Both Iran and Hezbollah have denied any involvement. 

Last week, in an explosive twist to the case, Nisman filed a criminal complaint that alleged Kirchner had conspired with Iran to protect its former officials in return for oil shipments. The complaint reportedly includes intercepts of telephone calls between Argentine and Iranian officials; these recordings are now in the hands of a judge. 

Investigators have also accused former President Carlos Menem, who was in power at the time of the bombing, of obstructing their enquiry. Mr. Menem was recently convicted of arms trafficking in a separate case. 

What happens next to Nisman's investigation into the bombing and alleged cover-up is unclear. A temporary prosecutor has been appointed in his place, but Leonardo Jmlenitsky, president of the Jewish community center, says Nisman's knowledge of the case is “irreplaceable.”

Small protests popped up across Argentina on Monday night. “I am Nisman,” was the predominant slogan. In Buenos Aires, thousands of people gathered outside the presidential palace, with many calling Nisman a defender of the truth. “He risked his life for Argentina,” says Federico, an engineer who declined to give his last name because he feared reprisal.

The timing of Nisman’s death is likely to further dent the government's poll ratings. Kirchner's vice president has been indicted on corruption charges, and the president herself was recently investigated over her ownership of a hotel that hadn't filed financial statements for years, as required by law. 

Writing in La Nación newspaper today, political commentator Joaquín Morales Solá said Nisman’s death marks “the darkest and most incomprehensible page of Argentina’s new democracy," which launched in 1983. 

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