One year ago, the Argentine lawyer Alberto Nisman was making international headlines. At first, it was for accusing Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and key government leaders of involvement in obstructing the investigation of the deadly 1994 AMIA bombing that killed 85 people, wounded hundreds, and destroyed the main Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Twenty years after the attack, the case remained unsolved, and Nisman, the prosecutor appointed to investigate the attack, announced he had new evidence that he was going to present before the National Congress. That evidence supposedly implicated high-level government officials in colluding to avoid investigating Iran. Hours before he was to appear before Congress he was discovered dead in his luxury apartment.
The political intrigue surrounding his death proved raised a number of questions and not just to the conspiracy minded. Was Nisman’s death a suicide or murder? In the case of the latter, who pulled the trigger or ordered it?
Nisman’s death triggered important questions about the importance of justice and the rule of law in Argentina. Citizens marched, holding signs for justice, now demanding accountability not just the deaths of the original 85 people but an additional one, the man charged with investigating what had happened. Yet others sought to separate Nisman’s death from the 85 dead of the AMIA bombing.
Nisman had announced his claims in a highly charged political context. President Kirchner had vehemently denied his allegations. In a sign of the political polarization of the country, the government and its sympathizers criticized the protests as a political ploy of the opposition. Indeed, the issue of Nisman’s death quickly became muddied by questions about motives and politics: Did Nisman actually have evidence condemning Cristina Kirchner? Or was this an elaborate plot to weaken her? The story became fodder for conspiracy theories– with international media focusing on the “mysterious death,” and possible motives for silencing him. Yet, whatever the reason for his death—suicide or murder—the loss of another life without answers is another story about the elusiveness of truth and the sometimes opaque nature of justice and the rule of law in Argentina.
Shadows and fog
As the attention receded and more time passed, the case that Nisman was due to present that morning started collapsing. In March a federal court of appeals dismissed the charges Nisman intended to level against Kirchner and the others, and in April a federal prosecutor upheld the dismissal. At that same time the investigation into his death seemed to stall and interest in the case appeared to wane.
Meanwhile, another anniversary of the AMIA bombing passed—21 years in July 2015, with the case still unsolved. A few weeks after the anniversary, a new trial began, focusing on the cover-up of the bombing and the obstruction of justice that has plagued the investigation of the attack. On trial were former president Carlos Menem and Rubén Beraja (head of the DAIA, a Jewish community organization, in the years during and after the bombing), among others. The case alleges that they were the key players in the corruption that derailed the investigation.
The trial is ongoing, with witnesses continuing to testify. Human rights groups like Memoria Activa (Active Memory) see the current trial as a critical step to finally establishing accountability. Another group, APEMIA, has called for the state to open up all of its files related to the AMIA case to be to public and for the creation of an independent investigatory commission.
So far newly inaugurated President Mauricio Macri’s has focused the first month of his new administration on implementing a series of pro-market reforms to move away from former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s economic model. That model has left the country with 20 percent inflation and near-zero growth. But Macri is also signaling some changes in human rights, raising questions as to how he will change the Kirchner judicial and legal legacy.
The human rights community in Argentina has expressed concerns over some of the changes being made by Macri– including the announcement that the new government would replace the leader of the National Archive of Memory. These changes are have raised fears that the recognition and public space given to the memory of human rights abuses of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship will be rolled back. Additionally, under the Kirchners, the amnesty laws that had protected key perpetrators of human rights violations during the dictatorship were overturned, opening the door for new trials, including the landmark ESMA trial still underway (with 68 defendants charged for over 700 crimes that took place at the ESMA). An additional concern arose when President Macri named two Supreme Court justices by decree; an action defended by the president as constitutional, but many have seen as an overreach of executive power.
Macri is also making changes related to the AMIA case. He has named a new Secretary for the AMIA investigation, who will also be connected to the Nisman case. The government also announced, on January 15th, that all documents related to the Nisman case and his accusations are to be declassified. Additionally, he has nullified the memorandum of understanding with Iran—the controversial accord that Cristina Kirchner signed in 2013 that would have resulted in a joint “truth” commission in Iran to investigate the bombing. That pact and the never-realized “truth” commission had been central to Nisman’s charges since high level Iranian government officials had been implicated in the attack.
Although it’s clear that Macri wants to institute changes that appear to be a step forward in the AMIA investigation and the Nisman case, as Apemia recently cautioned, it is important to continue asking: will these changes lead to greater transparency and accountability? Will they get us closer to the truth of what happened in 1994? And will they get us any closer to knowing the truth of what happened to Nisman in 2015?
Today, one year after Nisman’s death, leaders in the Jewish community organized a candlelight vigil to call for justice and remember Nisman’s death. In Argentina, it is not uncommon for memory to be an important political space, with citizens using it as a platform to call for justice and truth.
But what will the memory of Nisman ultimately tell us? Will it become yet one more anniversary, one more date and occasion for remembering violence and impunity in Argentina? Or will it become a moment that heralds the possibility for change, a shift that will lead to accountability that would ultimately strengthen democracy? One year later, it isn’t just about remembering Nisman, but asking what his death will ultimately come to mean for Argentina’s political history and for its future.