The Argentinean prosecutor investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires was found dead in his apartment on Sunday night with a gunshot wound to the head, hours before he was set to testify before lawmakers on his accusations of a cover-up by his country’s president in the case.
Argentinian media reported early Monday that Alberto Nisman, 51, was found in a pool of blood in the bathroom of his home in the capital’s Puerto Madero district. Police were investigating and Argentinian media reported that they had initially ruled the death a likely suicide.
The timing of Nisman’s death raised eyebrows, as the prosecutor had been set to speak before a congressional panel about his assertions, made public last week, that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman had covered up Iran’s involvement in the attack.
Late Sunday, federal police agents in charge of Nisman’s protection alerted their superiors that he wasn’t answering phone calls, according to a statement from the Health Ministry. When he also didn’t answer the door, they decided to alert family members, according to the statement.
When Nisman’s mother wasn’t able to open the door because a key was in the lock on the other side, a locksmith was called to open it, the ministry said. A .22 caliber handgun and a shell casing were found next to Nisman’s body.
“We can confirm that it was a gunshot wound, .22 caliber,” federal prosecutor Viviana Fein told Telam, Argentina’s official news agency. But Fein added that it was too early in the investigation to know what had happened.
Nisman had received many death threats over the years, people who knew him revealed on Monday. The Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, who had interviewed Nisman several times, wrote Monday, in an article entitled, “Who will obtain justice for Alberto Nisman?”: “Nisman told me that he had been warned off the AMIA case by Iran, and that he had received death threats, including one that he found recorded on his home answering machine which was particularly troubling because his daughter was standing next to him when he played it. In one of several subsequent telephone conversations, he said the Iranians had told him — during hearings at which they sought in vain to have their incriminated leaders cleared by Interpol — that he had slandered their nation, that his capture would be sought, and that he would spend years in Iran’s jails… Nisman did not appear particularly fazed by the threats, saying lightly that he had no plans to visit the Islamic Republic. He also swore that he would not cease his work on the case until the perpetrators and orchestrators had been tried, convicted and jailed.”
Nisman had last week filed a 300-page complaint naming Fernández, Timerman and others of seeking to “erase” Iran’s role in the bombing at the AMIA community center offices in which 85 people were killed. He had said he wanted to question the president and other officials whom he claimed were involved in the cover-up.
Nisman claimed that the president had decided to “not incriminate” former senior Iranian officials for their roles in planning the bombing, and instead has sought a rapprochement with Tehran, “establishing trade relations to mitigate Argentina’s severe energy crisis,” the Buenos Aires Herald reported.
When her agreement with Iran was challenged in the Argentinean courts, “and here is the criminal (aspect), the president ordered to divert the investigation, abandoning years of a legitimate demand of justice, and sought to free the Iranians imputed (in the case) from all suspicions, contradicting their proven ties with the attack.
“The president and her foreign minister took the criminal decision to fabricate Iran’s innocence to sate Argentina’s commercial, political and geopolitical interests,” the newspaper quoted Nisman as alleging.
Last May, an Argentine court declared unconstitutional an agreement between the Argentinian government and Iran to jointly probe the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish center. The agreement had been approved in 2013 by Argentina’s congress, at the request of the executive branch. Nisman consistently argued that the agreement constituted “undue interference of the executive branch in the exclusive sphere of the judiciary.”
Since 2006, Argentine courts have demanded the extradition of eight Iranians, including former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former defense minister Ahmad Vahidi and Mohsen Rabbani, Iran’s former cultural attache in Buenos Aires, over their alleged involvement in the bombing.
Buenos Aires was the site of two major attacks on Jewish sites in the 1990s: A 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy killed 29, while the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center left 85 dead.
Prosecutor Nisman traced the authorization for the July 18, 1994, terrorist attack to a meeting of Iran’s National Security Council held a year before, and compiled sufficiently compelling evidence of Iran’s role in the crime as to have several leading Iranian figures, including Vahidi and former presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai, placed on an Interpol “red notice” list. The final decision to attack the AMIA center was allegedly made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and then-president Rafsanjani.
The specific motivation for the 1994 AMIA bombing, according to Nisman, was to punish Argentina for suspending its nuclear cooperation with Iran. Once the decision was taken to act against the country, Nisman told The Times of Israel, it was a Jewish target that was decided upon — again, a familiar Iranian strategy. “When they choose to act against a country, the attack is commonly on the Jewish community,” he said. “It’s the first target.”
JTA, AP and AFP contributed to this report.