Argentines rally for prosecutor as autopsy proves inconclusive

Preliminary results show Alberto Nisman killed by bullet below his ear; government says it will declassify AMIA wiretaps

A woman holds a sign reading 'Justice, justice, justice for the death of prosecutor Nisman' during a demonstration in front of the National Congress in Buenos Aires on January 19, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Juan Vargas)
A woman holds a sign reading 'Justice, justice, justice for the death of prosecutor Nisman' during a demonstration in front of the National Congress in Buenos Aires on January 19, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Juan Vargas)

Argentinian-Jewish prosecutor Alberto Nisman was killed by a gunshot below his ear, the preliminary results of an autopsy showed Monday, as thousands of Argentinians headed to the streets to protest his death.

Nisman was found dead of a gunshot wound just hours before he was due to testify at a congressional hearing on the deadly 1994 AMIA bombing.

Nisman had fingered Iran and Hezbollah in the attack, which killed 85 people at a Jewish community building, and was scheduled to release information tying Argentinean President Christina Kirchner to a coverup of Tehran’s involvement hours before he was found dead.

Police initially said the death appeared to be a suicide.

Local media reported that Nisman died of a bullet wound two centimeters below his right ear. The bullet matched the .22 caliber gun beside him, it said, but it could not immediately be established whether the death was a suicide or foul play.

The full autopsy report was slated to be released later Monday.

The Argentinian intelligence agency said it would declassify incriminating wiretaps in the AMIA bombing, the case Nisman was investigating before his death.

The Intelligence Secretariat (SI) said it ordered “the declassification of the identity, actions, events and circumstances relating to intelligence personnel that arise from the recorded telephone calls,” according to the Buenos Aires Herald.

The intelligence agency conveyed the message to the judge presiding over the AMIA probe, and said it was acting on the orders of Kirchner.

Nisman had requested these files be made available before his death.

Nisman — who was set to give damning testimony against Kirchner, and had accused her of obstructing the investigation and covering up Iranian involvement in the terror attack — has been replaced by a different prosecutor, on the instructions of the attorney general, according to local media.

Alberto Nisman (photo credit: YouTube)
Alberto Nisman (photo credit: YouTube)

Prosecutor Alberto Gentili will testify instead of Nisman, the report said.

“Gentili is the one Nisman asked for his replacement every time he had to leave. The unit cannot be left vacant,” a public ministry statement said.

But the current head of the AMIA Jewish community building said Nisman was “irreplaceable.”

Leonardo Jmelnitzky said Nisman’s decade-long investigation into the fatal bombing, which killed 85 people, could not be simply picked up where he left off.

“It is very difficult to find someone who can get to know the case as he did,” Jmlenitsky said, according to local media.

“He had worked for 10 years in the cause. It is irreplaceable.”

Nisman’s death set off an uproar in Argentina with officials expressing shock over his untimely death, and mass demonstrations were scheduled.

Over 8,000 people said on Facebook Monday afternoon they would attend a demonstration in front of the presidential residence, while some 2,000 were slated to rally in front of Congress, according to Bloomberg News.

A vigil was also planned for Monday night.

Several officials maintained Monday that Nisman’s death appeared to be a suicide.

“All signs point to suicide,” said Argentine Security Secretary Sergio Berni following the death of Alberto Nisman, 51, whose body was found overnight in his apartment in the trendy Puerto Madero neighborhood of the capital.

Anibal Fernandez, secretary general for the presidency, said he was “dumbfounded,” adding there was “absolutely nothing normal” about it.

Congresswoman Cornelia Schmidt-Liermann said she had planned to pick Nisman up Monday at his residence and accompany him for his testimony.

“Everybody who had contact with him the last 24 hours says he was confident” about his testimony,” she told The Associated Press. “There is no indication, under any circumstances, that he killed himself.”

Israel expressed sorrow over Nisman’s death, praising him as a courageous jurist who “worked with great determination to expose the attack’s perpetrators and dispatchers.”

“The State of Israel hopes Argentina’s authorities will continue Nisman’s work, and take every possible effort to bring those behind the Argentina attacks to justice,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Officials said a .22-caliber handgun was found beside Nisman’s body, which was discovered by his mother in the bathroom of his 13th-floor apartment after his security detail was unable to contact him.

Nisman, since 2004, had been investigating the 1994 van bombing of the building of the Argentine Jewish Charities Federation, or AMIA. The bombing left 85 people dead and 300 others injured in the worst attack of its kind in the South American country.

He said in the past that he had received death threats for his work.

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 last week had asked for an investigation into possible obstruction by Kirchner and was due to speak at a congressional hearing Monday to provide evidence of his assertions.

He was also expected to lodge accusations against her foreign minister Hector Timerman.

Timerman, who strongly denied the accusations against him, said he expected prosecutors to pursue whatever evidence Nisman had.

“There are many people who were aware of what Nisman wanted to present today in Congress and I expect they will go forward with his work,” he told reporters in New York.

The prosecutor had accused Iran of being behind the attack and said Kirchner hampered the inquiry to curry favor with the Islamic Republic and gain access to its oil.

The government has categorically denied the accusations.

Nisman had also accused former president Carlos Menem of helping obstruct an investigation into the bombing.

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.

Argentina charges that Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement, carried out the attack under orders from Iran, which Tehran denies.

A man walks over the rubble left after a bomb exploded at the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, 18 July 1994. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / Ali BURAFI)
A man walks over the rubble left after a bomb exploded at the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, 18 July 1994. (photo credit: AFP/Ali Burafi)

Nisman had said he had phone recordings that show the Kirchner government and Argentine authorities had bowed to Iranian demands after the Islamic Republic dangled lucrative commercial contracts.

The intelligence information that Kirchner ordered declassified following Nisman’s death involved wiretaps on four telephone numbers, said Oscar Parrilli, the Intelligence secretary.

Nisman was supposed to present proof of his allegations that Kirchner and Timerman had a “plan of impunity” to “protect the Iranian fugitives.”

In addition to his complaint, Nisman had ordered the freezing of assets worth some $23 million of Kirchner, Timerman and other officials.

Jewish community members had cautiously welcomed Nisman’s complaint, but also requested he make public evidence to back up his assertions.

Opposition lawmaker Patricia Bullrich said she was shocked by Nisman’s death, calling it “a grave affront to the country’s institutions.”

Bullrich said she’d spoken to Nisman on the phone on Saturday on three occasions and he said that he had received several threats.

Elisa Carrio, leader of the Civic Coalition, an opposition party, bluntly called Nisman’s death “an assassination,” saying she did not accept that it was a suicide.

In 2013, Argentina’s Congress approved, at the request of the executive branch, an agreement with Tehran to form a truth commission to investigate the bombing, consisting of five members from neither Argentina nor Iran.

It also authorized an Argentine judge to travel to Iran to question the former officials accused of involvement.

The Jewish center bombing came two years after an attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people.

Argentina’s Jewish population of about 300,000 people is the largest in Latin America.

AP contributed to this report.

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