On Sunday night, Alberto Nisman, the federal prosecutor leading the investigation of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA (the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society) in Buenos Aires was discovered dead from a gunshot wound to his head, alone in his bathroom, hours before he was to present controversial findings before a Congressional Committee. The July 18, 1994, attack killed 85 people and wounded hundreds, also destroying the principal Jewish community center in Argentina, home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America. Though this was the most significant terrorist attack in Argentine history, it remains unsolved after 20 years of problematic investigations and judicial efforts.
In the years after the bombing, Iran and Hezbollah were suspected of having responsibility for the attack, though they denied any involvement. An official investigation took place, resulting in a trial that concluded in 2004 without any convictions. Because of the advocacy work of the group Memoria Activa (Active Memory), the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights declared in 2005 that Argentina failed to provide justice in the AMIA case.
President Néstor Kirchner first assigned Nisman to be the special prosecutor in 2004 and, according to Nisman, refused to negotiate with Iran. At that time, Nisman noted that Iran had approached the Foreign Ministry proposing a deal to purchase Argentine wheat for US$4 billion, if Argentina ended its prosecutorial efforts against Iranian suspects—something the president rejected. Nisman formally accused Iran and Hezbollah of bearing responsibility for the bombing in 2006; in 2007, Interpol had issued arrest warrants for six Iranians suspected of involvement.
Yet after President Kirchner’s 2010 death, Nisman described an abrupt policy shift under the leadership of his wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Nisman, who was of Jewish descent but not observant, detailed these allegations in an accusation he filed last Wednesday, claiming he had records from phone taps that corroborated his findings. He argued that President Cristina Kirchner chose to essentially indemnify Iran in the investigation, directing her Minister of Foreign Affairs Héctor Timerman to remove Iran from the AMIA case (and even pursue false local connections)—all to improve trade relations, hoping to exchange Argentine grain for Iranian oil.
Nisman confirmed he had verified phone records supporting his claims against the president, her minister Timerman, and other government functionaries. The political shift to improve relations with Iran also explains the controversial 2013 Memorandum of Understanding between Argentina and Iran, intended to establish a joint “truth commission” to investigate the AMIA bombing. Many doubted the possibility that such a commission would lead to any truth and felt it would instead ensure that justice would not be attained. According to Nisman, its purpose was political—to help with Argentina’s negotiations with Iran.
On Monday, Jan. 19, Nisman intended to present the evidence he discovered before Congress. Yet he was found dead the night before in his apartment—leaving this evidence and the future of the investigation uncertain. According to preliminary autopsy results, Argentine authorities claim no third party was involved, suggesting a suicide. However, the timing of Nisman’s death has left many Argentines questioning whether this was in fact a suicide and seriously concerned about whatever possibilities remain for justice and truth in the AMIA case.
I first met Sofía Kaplinsky de Guterman during my fieldwork in Buenos Aires at one of the protests organized to fight for justice and memory after the bombing. She had lost her only daughter, Andrea Judith, in the 1994 bombing, a Monday morning when Andrea had gone to the AMIA job center in search of new work as a nursery teacher. She felt she had to fight for her daughter, “because if I didn’t do it, no one would do it. I believe that when no one remembers a person, that is when they die completely.” Her efforts have relentlessly focused on resisting that oblivion—attending commemorative protests, speaking with schoolchildren, and writing several works of nonfiction and poetry about the bombing and her loss.
The AMIA bombing became a pivotal turning point in Jewish communal life in Argentina as well, raising questions about the possibility of safety with the second terrorist attack in two years (the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed in 1992). It also prompted a crisis of belonging, leading to increased security measures at Jewish schools, synagogues, and other institutions, and the formation of new social movements that protested in public plazas and streets to demand justice and memory.
Like many others, Guterman was waiting for Nisman’s testimony before Congress on Monday to be a day of “revelations” that would help move forward her desire for truth and justice. Yet instead, on Monday morning, she awoke in shock to the news of Nisman’s death. “He is one more victim,” she told me. “He is victim number 86. It is as if the bomb exploded again today.”
The sense of this death being a groundbreaking event—a disruption that has come to reshape the landscape in fundamental ways—has reverberated throughout Argentina, as citizens of all backgrounds have responded to the tragedy of his death and the endemic corruption and impunity it affirmed. Through a campaign waged largely on social media (through a new Facebook group called “Indignant Argentines” and the Twitter hashtags #19E—for Jan. 19—and #YoSoyNisman—I am Nisman), a protest was convened on Monday evening in the Plaza de Mayo—the paradigmatic public square that faces the Casa Rosada presidential palace—where thousands of citizens gathered to condemn Nisman’s death and impunity more broadly.
One of those citizens, Jewish Argentine artist Mirta Kupferminc, who designed the monument to the AMIA bombing victims that stands in the plaza facing Argentina’s High Courts, felt compelled to go to the march. What struck her there was the amount of people “who were marching not just for the AMIA. This has transcended the AMIA case. They were mourning democracy.” There were many such protests on Monday night—all over Argentina (continuing tonight with another protest convened by the Jewish community leaders to take place at the site of the bombing). Kupferminc shared what she called everyone’s “consternation as Argentines, as citizens of the world. There has been a loss of limits. A disappearance of the law, where those who are supposed to take care of us and govern us do not.”
Luis Czyzewski, who lost his daughter Paola in the 1994 bombing, also attended the protest, where he described seeing many handmade signs, proclaiming “I Am Nisman.” He also awoke to the news of Nisman’s death as a shock, and he saw it as a two-fold tragedy—the human loss of Alberto Nisman (and the tragedy for his two daughters, and his mother), and the political tragedy this represents for Argentina. While some may believe the AMIA case is dead after so many years, Czyzewski still has hope for the case—that what happened with Nisman will provoke further investigations. “I hope that the death of Nisman was not in vain,” he told me. “To honor his death, we need to continue fighting to know the truth.”
Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner has yet to make a formal statement about Nisman’s death. Yet, Argentines have responded in ways that resonate with activists like Sofía Guterman. “People are reacting,” she told me. “People are demanding justice. And at least this will remind them that the bombing happened to all Argentines, even if it affected our family members this time. Everyone has to fight to make sure this doesn’t happen again. They cannot give in to fear. They have to continue the struggle—to fight for justice, at least in the case of the prosecutor. Maybe his justice will be the beginning of justice for our dead, for our victims.”
Today, the words memory, truth, and justice, stand as literal pillars commemorating sites of previous state torture and abuse, suggesting an era of human rights and accountability in Argentina. Yet the AMIA case—unresolved since 1994—and the death of Nisman raise profound questions about democracy and the rule of law in Argentina. Ten years after his appointment as special prosecutor and 20 years after the bombing, little has changed in the landscape of justice.
Laura Ginsberg, an activist who lost her husband Enrique Ginsberg in the bombing, has argued for the opening of the SIDE (intelligence services) archives, through her group APEMIA (Association for the Clarification of the Unpunished Massacre of the AMIA). Pablo Gitter, also of APEMIA, says that the need for transparency is urgent because of the pervasive corruption in the judiciary and the state. APEMIA has further called for the creation of an independent investigatory commission, what they call the “CONADEP of the AMIA” (CONADEP referring to the historic 1984 truth commission that facilitated Argentina’s transition from dictatorship to democracy) as the only way to establish the truth of what happened.
How and why did Alberto Nisman die? Who was responsible for the AMIA bombing? When will Argentines see some form of justice in these cases? These remain open questions, challenging the limits of democracy in Argentina. While Nisman’s death has brought the AMIA bombing to the forefront of national and global consciousness, it also presents another impediment to the 20-year pursuit of justice in the case, revealing how the ongoing struggles for some form of accountability and truth continue against a horizon of impunity.
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