Occurring suddenly in the midst of Oscar season, the mysterious death of Argentine special prosecutor Alberto Nisman is the kind of real-life whodunit that Hollywood producers dream of putting on the big screen. But for those who for more than two decades have sought justice for the 85 people who lost their lives, and for the 300 wounded, in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Nisman’s passing makes that search even harder.
He was, in a way, the 86th victim.
Investigating the worst terrorist act committed in the Western Hemisphere before 9/11 required an individual determined to uncover the truth. Nisman proved to be the right man for the job, as it became clear soon after he was appointed special prosecutor in 2005 to probe the AMIA bombing.
He pursued the investigation with tenacity, seeking to identify and bring to justice those responsible for a heinous attack that targeted both Argentina and its Jewish community. Jews and non-Jews alike perished in the leveled AMIA building on July 18, 1994, which came just two years after another fatal terrorist attack struck the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Many suspected that Iran and its Hezbollah proxy were behind the attack, but it was not until Nisman led the investigation that progress was finally made. Before then, years of bungling, delays and missteps characterized the official investigation.
In 2007, he released a report detailing the involvement of specific Iranian officials. Interpol found the evidence so compelling that, despite Tehran’s strenuous objections, it issued “red notices” for six Iranians, including one who would serve as Iranian defense minister from 2009-2013, and one Hezbollah operative, who was subsequently killed in Lebanon. However, though several of the Iranians have traveled freely outside Iran, none have been apprehended.
Five years later, Nisman released another penetrating report showing that Iran had set up terror cells in several Latin American countries, using mosques, businesses and its own embassies to provide legal cover. For Nisman, the AMIA attack was not about Argentina alone, but a harbinger of a much larger threat to the region emanating from Tehran.
His inquiries also probed suspicions of Argentine complicity in the terror attack and in attempts to obstruct his investigation. He opposed a bizarre 2013 agreement between Argentina and Iran jointly establishing a “truth commission” that would look into the AMIA case. Many critics agreed with him, objecting to it as a transparent scheme to derail the criminal investigation — it would have entailed withdrawal of the “red notices” against the Iranians — and Nisman appealed successfully to an Argentine federal court to declare the truth-commission deal unconstitutional.
Nisman was indefatigable. A few days before his death, he presented to an Argentine court a 300-page document accusing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman of conspiring to cover up for former Iranian officials accused of being involved in the deadly attack.
His steely resolve to answer questions about the AMIA bombing led to death threats over the years. Yet he showed no signs of fear, expressing determination to fight to the end.
The timing and circumstances of his untimely death raise many questions, which must be fully — and transparently — investigated. Nisman was found dead in his apartment of a gunshot wound just hours before he was scheduled to brief Argentine parliamentarians about the evidence he had collected against the president and foreign minister.
Clear answers about his death are absolutely needed, even if, like the AMIA investigation itself, the chances of getting a full, credible explanation are highly uncertain. At the same time, the investigation he admirably and courageously led cannot be allowed to falter and fade away. For the victims, the survivors and their families, next July will mark 21 years of justice delayed and, therefore, justice denied.
Shockingly, after more than 20 years, not a single person has been convicted for the AMIA bombing. Alberto Nisman, a principled man who sought justice, was determined to change that, yet he is now suddenly dead. The fight for justice for the AMIA victims cannot be allowed to die with him.
David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and Dina Siegel Vann is director of AJC’s Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.