The night before he was due to testify before lawmakers about what he claimed was a coverup of Iran’s alleged role in a devastating Buenos Aires bombing, prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead with a single bullet wound to the temple.
He had been making waves by accusing President Cristina Fernández of blocking his investigation into the unresolved 1994 blast at the AMIA Jewish center that killed 85 people — often called Latin America’s deadliest terrorist attack.
Her motive, Nisman claimed, was to bolster trade with oil-rich Iran unhindered by accusations that Iranian officials, including former Defense minister Ahmad Vahidi, were suspects in the case. Tehran has denied any part in the attack.
Nisman’s death initially bore the hallmarks of a suicide. A gun and a single bullet casing were found by his body in his apartment, which had been locked from the inside.
Still, there’s widespread suspicion he did not kill himself. Many Argentines even regard the president as a suspect in his death.
Here is the cast of characters in a baffling mystery that Hollywood might have struggled to dream up.
Alberto Nisman, 51, was widely regarded as a tenacious, savvy federal prosecutor. A father of two, he shook up the floundering AMIA (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association) bombing investigation when he took it over a decade ago.
He swiftly pointed the finger at Tehran and issued an Interpol arrest warrant for six Iranian security officials, including Vahidi. He also unsuccessfully called for the arrest of former Argentine president Carlos Menem. Ever since, he received numerous death threats and lived under armed guard.
Initially an ally of Fernández, he was even considered for the role of attorney general. But the pair grew apart two years ago when she signed a highly controversial deal to set up an AMIA truth commission jointly with Iran.
Nisman, who was Jewish, subsequently alleged that a secret condition of the deal was “impunity” for Tehran over the atrocity.
Differing accounts have emerged over Nisman’s final days. Some witnesses have described him as combative, while one sensed the prosecutor was “scared.”
Argentine President Cristina Fernández appears on national
Argentine President Cristina Fernández appears on national TV on Jan. 26, 2015 to announce that she is disbanding the nation’s spy agency. (Photo: Argentinian Presidency via European Pressphoto Agency)
Now coming to the end of her second and final term, Cristina Fernández has been president of Argentina since 2007, when she took over the job from her late husband Nestor Kirchner.
During that time, her administration has staggered from one corruption scandal to another. The Argentine economy has also been on shaky legs, prompting Fernández to clamp down on independent economists who calculated inflation at more than double the official figure, even reaching 40% last year, according to some.
Meanwhile, her family’s wealth reportedly increased by nearly 1,200% while in office.
While Fernández still has many devoted followers in her homeland, critics accuse her of demagoguery. For them, her handling of Nisman’s death only confirms that dark reputation.
Recovering from a broken ankle, she initially only responded to the bombshell via Twitter, Facebook and her website. Surprisingly, perhaps, she agreed with her many compatriots who believe Nisman’s suicide was induced, and suggested that he was being manipulated by rogue Argentine security agents.
“I don’t have proof. But I don’t have doubts either,” she wrote.
Then, on Monday night, one week after Nisman’s body was discovered, she finally appeared on TV to announce that she was disbanding Argentina’s national spy agency.
Sitting in a wheelchair and dressed head to toe in white, she expressed no condolences to Nisman’s family.
THE LAST WITNESS
Diego Lagomarsino, an IT expert who had been working on Nisman’s team since 2007, was the last person known to have seen him alive.
Lagomarsino, 35, who had also become close friends with his boss, visited the prosecutor’s house in an upmarket Buenos Aires neighborhood on the eve of the shooting.
According to his official testimony reported by local news media, it was then that Lagomarsino lent Nisman the .22-caliber Bersa pistol found beside his colleague’s body some 24 hours later. The prosecutor had requested the weapon, Lagomarsino said, out of fear for his safety as the death threats against him multiplied.
The aide could now face up to six years in jail because Nisman didn’t have a firearms license.
Lagomarsino voluntarily met with investigators to give his testimony shortly after Nisman was discovered dead. He has now handed over his passport and is barred from leaving the country.
News media and administration officials say much of Nisman’s information about the AMIA bombing came from Antonio Stiusso, sometimes described as the strongman of Argentina’s intelligence agency.
Before Nisman, Stiusso, 61, was the Argentine official with the greatest knowledge of the case. He is also reported to have wielded enough power behind the scenes in Buenos Aires that, on at least one occasion, he got a cabinet minister fired.
He was dismissed himself last year, after stepping out of the shadows to give a magazine interview claiming that the government was scapegoating him.
Since Nisman’s death, officials have been briefing journalists, suggesting that Stiusso was feeding Nisman false leads about the AMIA bombing in revenge for losing his job and the considerable power that came with it.
That theory has gained momentum with at least one prominent opposition congresswoman saying Nisman told her he had been betrayed by an unnamed spy.
Conflicting evidence emerging from the investigation has only fueled the conspiracies around Nisman’s death.
No gunpowder residue was found on Nisman’s hands, indicating that he may not have pulled the trigger himself. On the other hand, there was so much blood at the scene that forensic scientists doubt anyone else present could have left without leaving prints.
Yet, initially at least, investigators were saying Nisman’s apartment was locked from the inside, pointing to his death being a genuine suicide.
But that was thrown into doubt by the locksmith who opened the apartment for the police. Named by local news media simply as Walter, he told reporters a service door had been left unsecured.
Subsequent reports said the door had two locks, only one of which had been used. Then some speculated that Nisman’s mother unlocked the other in a desperate attempt to find her missing son. The definitive version has yet to be nailed down.
THE INVESTIGATING PROSECUTOR
Viviana Fein is the experienced attorney probing Nisman’s death. She picked up that responsibility by being in charge of the 45th public prosecutor’s office of Buenos Aires, which has jurisdiction over his neighborhood.
She appears to be keeping her options open while also fiercely maintaining her professional independence. One of her first acts, upon arriving at Nisman’s apartment, was to tell Interior Minister Sergio Berni that his presence at the scene was inappropriate.
She has publicly stated there is no evidence of anyone else being present inside Nisman’s home at the time of his death, while also refusing to rule out the possibility of an induced suicide.
After hearing of Fernández’s speculation about Nisman’s untimely demise, she responded: “She is free to think, like any citizen. … I’ll stick to my investigation.”
Behind the commotion over Nisman’s dramatic death looms the long shadow of Tehran, the main beneficiary of the Argentine government’s alleged coverup of its supposed involvement in the AMIA bombing.
It seems improbable that the reformist administration of President Hassan Rouhani would do anything as crazy as knocking off Nisman while it attempts to negotiate a nuclear deal and improve relations with the West.
Yet even as she focuses on potential suspects closer to home, Fein likely will at least be leaving open the long shot possibility that rogue, hardline elements in Iran’s security apparatus were involved.
The news of Nisman’s death was broken almost immediately by Damian Pachter, a journalist for the Buenos Aires Herald and Israel’s Haaretz newspapers.
Since his first tweet about the bombshell events inside Nisman’s apartment, Pachter says he has received death threats and accuses security officials of tapping his phone.
Fearing for his life, he has now fled to Israel and says he will not return to Buenos Aires while Fernández remains president.
As if to confirm Pachter’s fears, the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential office, caused a stir by publishing details of his flight on its official Twitter account.
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.