By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank this week presented its Alberto Nisman Award for Courage to Judge Royce Lamberth. A senior district judge for the District of Columbia, Lamberth is no stranger to the Iranian-backed terrorism that cost Alberto Nisman his life as he investigated Tehran’s responsibility for the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires. In 2003, Lamberth ruled that the Iranian regime would have to pay more than $2 billion to the families of the 241 U.S. Marines murdered in Beirut in 1983 by a Hezbollah bomb.
“Based on the evidence presented by the expert witnesses at trial, the court finds that it is beyond question that Hezbollah and its agents received massive material and technical support from the Iranian government,” Lamberth wrote at the time. Much the same can be said of the AMIA atrocity, which claimed the lives of 85 people and which came just two years after another Iranian-sponsored attack in Argentina—the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people and wounded hundreds more. But in Nisman’s case, his unmasking of Iranian culpability, along with the Argentine government’s decision to shield the mullahs from investigation, is what has fueled the widespread suspicion that this courageous federal prosecutor was murdered for speaking truth to power.
Since, sadly, Nisman is not yet a household name among Jews in general, some reminder of both his life’s work and the circumstances of his death is probably in order. In 2004, Nisman was appointed by Argentina’s then-president, Nestor Kirchner, to take over the AMIA investigation, which had descended into a farce by avoiding the Iranian connection and concentrating solely on low-level local operatives. With Nestor Kirchner’s support, Nisman formally accused Iran and Hezbollah of orchestrating the attack. His indictment named Iran’s top leaders as having approved the bombing, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then-president Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, and then-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati.
In 2008, Nisman’s tenacity resulted in Interpol releasing Red Notices—which seek the location, arrest, and extradition of wanted persons—for the capture of several Iranian officials, including former deputy defense minister Ahmad Vahidi and Mohsen Rabbani, who served as the “cultural attaché” at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires at the time of the bombing. By then, however, the political environment in Argentina had changed dramatically. Nestor Kirchner died in 2007 and was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. CFK, as she is commonly known, was in thrall to the radical agenda of Hugo Chavez, the former Venezuelan leader, as well as leftists and Islamist-sympathizers in her own circles.
By 2013, Nisman was out in the cold, as former Argentine foreign minister Hector Timerman—a man who, for his troubles, was described as “that f**king Jew” by one of Cristina Kirchner’s closest advisors—negotiated a shameful deal with the Iranians to create a “truth commission” in which representatives of both countries would settle the dispute over the extradition of the AMIA suspects.
With his own government working against him, Nisman began investigating the cover-up negotiated by Timerman. On Jan. 18, 2015, one day before he was due to present his findings to Argentina’s Congress, Nisman was found dead in his apartment in Buenos Aires from a bullet to his head.
One cover-up, it would seem, led to another. There was enough in terms motive and actual evidence to suggest that Nisman was murdered—the Iranians had been openly threatening him—yet Argentina’s politically corrupted authorities insisted on treating his death as a suicide. And that was how the case proceeded until last November, when opposition leader Mauricio Macri defied all the predictions and was elected as Argentina’s new president.
With Macri’s election, the House of Kirchner has collapsed in spectacular fashion. Just this week, Cristina Kirchner appeared in court to answer charges of currency rigging.
“They can send me to prison, but I will not stay silent,” she told her supporters before stepping into the dock. (It’s true—Kirchner is among the last people on Earth to stay silent, and the prospect of a custodial sentence is a real one.)
This same criminality stained Kirchner’s approach to Nisman’s death, and in Macri’s new Argentina, that too has backfired. At the end of March, an appeals court in Buenos Aires ruled that the investigation into how Nisman came to be shot dead would be transferred to a federal court—a sign that his death is being treated as murder, since such cases in Argentina are federal matters. At that hearing, Pablo Lanusse, an attorney retained by Nisman’s mother Sarah Garfunkel, declared without ambiguity that “Nisman was assassinated so as to impede the progress of his work on behalf of the state. This case is screaming for a transfer to the federal courts because it must be recognized that Nisman was murdered.”
A proper investigation into Nisman’s death could well lead to a re-examination of the AMIA atrocity, whose victims have been denied justice for more than 20 years. Indeed, one of Macri’s first statements as president was to say that he was not bound by the shabby agreement with Iran negotiated under his predecessor.
Even so, nothing is guaranteed. Argentine political observers have noted that the judge now presiding over the Nisman investigation, Julian Ercolini, has been criticized over decisions he made concerning the business interests of the brutal military dictatorship that ruled from 1976-83. At the same time, the prosecutor in charge of the Nisman investigation, Eduardo Taiano, is also leading the probe into Cristina Kirchner’s currency rigging. No wonder, then, that the former president is having sleepless nights.
As the court investigation proceeds, it’s imperative that Jews outside Argentina understand what is at stake here. The AMIA bombing was the worst single anti-Semitic crime since World War II, and Iran was responsible for it. Nothing less than the conviction and sentencing of the perpetrators is acceptable. No more compromises and no more backroom deals.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).