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Alberto Nisman and Argentina’s terror shame

Investigator Alberto Nisman uncovered a plot to abandon justice in exchange for Iranian oil. His death reveals deep problems at the heart of Argentina's politics and society

Names outside the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina

The day he was killed, investigating magistrate Alberto Nisman had been putting the finishing touches to the testimony he was due to present the Penal Legislation committee the Argentine Congress. Four days earlier he had issued a secret 290-page report in which he called for Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, President of Argentina. to be placed under judicial investigation. At the closed session of the committee, he was to detail evidence, obtained from intelligence agents whose phones had been tapped, of an extraordinary cover-up, involving the president, the foreign minister, the perversion of the course of justice, the exchange of oil for food, and arms sales proposed to Iran.

As well as the version on his desk, also discovered were 26 further pages, dated June 2014, which had apparently been scrunched up in his wastepaper basket. They included a discarded draft requesting the arrest of President Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timmerman. When anti-government newspaper Clarìn published details of the draft request, the administration's official spokesman Jorge Capitanich reacted by tearing up a copy of the offending paper's "pure rubbish" on camera, at his official press conference.

On the night of 18 January, Mr Nisman's mother found her son's body at his apartment, whose front door had been locked from the inside and which had to be opened with the help of a locksmith. Mr Nisman's skull had punctured by a single bullet-wound from a .22 calibre pistol, given to him the day before by one Diego Lagomarsino, who had worked as an intelligence advisor on the case. Straight after the police had been notified of Mr Nisman's death, Sergio Berni, the State Security Secretary appeared on the scene (he said he was there to make sure evidence wasn't tampered with). The next morning, before the autopsy had been done, President Fernandez de Kirchner herself at first suggested that the death was suicide. It has since transpired that the door to the apartment's service entrance had been left open, and the building's security cameras had been malfunctioning for some time. Mr Nisman's security detail of 10 Buenos Aires policemen were absent from their posts.

Iran’s role in Jewish centre attack

Aftermath of the 1994 bombing

The magistrate had been investigating the biggest terrorist attack ever on Argentine soil: the bombing, in all likelihood by Iranian agents or Hezbollah, of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), the Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires. Eighty-five people died in the attack. Argentine investigators later named senior Hezbollah operative Imad Mugniyeh, as well as Iranians Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmed Vahidi among those responsible. Vahidi would go on to become defence minister under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; former president Rafsanjani would move into opposition in Iran following the failed 2009 uprising; and Imad Mugniyeh would be assassinated in a joint operation by the CIA and Israeli secret services in 2008.

More, however, than just a plot launched by a particularly high-level group of men working for Tehran, the AMIA case and the subsequent cover-up bring together every subterranean theme of Argentine society, from anti-Semitism and the amorphous Peronist political movement to abuses of executive power and sempiternally self-defeating economic policy.

Among Argentina's many paradoxes is that it is home both to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, but that anti-Semitism remains surprisingly common. "Why do you want to send him there?" my family doctor asked my mother as she explained I was being sent to the Lincoln school in Buenos Aires, "it's full of Jews."

It is now well known that in the 1940s the government smuggled in large numbers of Nazis fleeing justice in Europe (Uki Goñi's account of the smuggling operation, The Real Odessa, is more gripping and blessed with rather less bad sex than the Frederick Forsyth novel from which it derives its title), and it was from Buenos Aires whence Israeli agents spirited Adolf Eichmann to his trial in Jerusalem.

Whether Juan Domingo Perón, in charge of Argentina at the time, would have been more anti-Semitic than any other populist strongman of the day is perhaps a moot point. His legacy has been corrosive of the Argentine body politic. Peronisn, the eponymous political movement that is located everywhere on the political spectrum and nowhere simultaneously, began as an appeal to the working and lower middle classes, often found in the then-prestigious army as well as in factories, who were firmly shut out by the landed elite and bourgeoisie and whose interests, in Perón's mind, were to be served by a strong authoritarian state.

He managed that state in patrimonial style, with himself as father figure, dispensing favours and social justice. If repression during his first stint was not terribly severe by the standards of a country whose leader was a general, the capricious and personal nature of his rule meant that even though Peronism brought the working classes into Argentine politics, they lacked a social democratic party through which their interests could be pursued and which might have had a stake in creating institutions that would endure when they passed, or were forced, into opposition.

Kirchner cover up?

Except for the 1990s rule of Carlos Menem, who combined fiscally orthodox economics with gaudy crony capitalism, Peronism in power has always been populist. The Kirchners returned Argentina to its roots after the default of 2003. Thanks to the general boom Argentina enjoyed robust nominal growth, undermined by high levels of inflation, politically toxic in Argentina where memories of hyperinflation are fresh. Quite how quickly prices have risen nobody really knows, because the government banned the publication of independent inflation statistics. Yet truth cannot be completely concealed for it can be estimated by the black market exchange rate for the peso, so even that unofficial rate has had to be bolstered by exchange controls and tariffs. President Fernandez de Kirchner would distract from the economic difficulty by blaming foreign, usually and conveniently Spanish, companies for exploiting the resources of their former colony; a campaign of distraction that evolved into the expropriation of the oil company YPF which had been sold to Spain's Repsol.

This did not, to say the least, do wonders for YPF's productivity or ability to attract foreign technology, and Argentina, which became a slight net oil importer in 2011 has seen its hydrocarbon production fall precipitously since. Foreign oil, of course has to be paid for and manifests itself in higher prices at the pumps and more expensive industrial production. Elections are due this year, and though the president cannot stand again, she would rest easier in retirement under the protection of as successor beholden to her faction of the Peronist movement.

To wit the allegations made by Mr Nisman of a deal to barter grain for Iranian oil in exchange for covering up the Iranian role in the bombing of the AMIA. This, asserted Mr Nisman's denuncia, was achieved by a memorandum of understanding with Tehran in which Argentina was to abandon the attempt to prosecute the Iranian suspects in favour of a "Truth Commission" under the joint supervision of Tehran and Buenos Aires. If the president had counted on latent anti-Semitism or weak political institutions to conceal a stratagem to make amends for economic failure by perverting the courts of justice, she did not reckon with Alberto Nisman. At his request (and that of the AMIA and another Jewish community organisation) Argentine courts ruled that memorandum unconstitutional last summer, leaving him to prepare the report that was to be his last.

Garvan Walshe grew up in Argentina. He has been National and International Security Adviser to the Conservative Party and writes a regular column for Conservative Home. He now runs Brexit Analytica.