Pope Troubled Over Prosecutor’s Mysterious Death in Argentina

News Analysis

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina is the country of Pope Francis, whose voice often appeals to consciences crying out for justice in many cases of violence on different points of the planet.

But the Pope has remained silent about the mysterious death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman on Jan. 18. His death came hours before he was going to present an accusation against Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and other high-level authorities, of trying to cover-up the apparent perpetrators in the 1994 terrorist bombing of a Jewish community center run by the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires. The attack killed 85 victims.

Nisman was found dead from a gunshot wound in the bathroom of his apartment. Authorities ruled it as a suicide.

The almost 300-page report Nisman was going to read before the Argentinian Congress revealed telephone wiretaps that linked secret negotiations between Argentine government agents and informal Iranian representatives, with the intent of signing a memorandum of understanding between Argentina and Iran over how to investigate the 1994 bombing. The memorandum was discussed but never signed by the countries’ respective foreign-affairs ministers in a meeting they had in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2013.

The memorandum intended to establish a mixed “truth commission,” with members from both countries and with members of other nations. The commission would have analyzed and investigated the attack on the AMIA. Argentine courts, however, had previously asked Interpol to arrest several Iranian civil servants. The Kirchner government argued that since Argentine judges could not force the Iranian officials to make depositions on Argentine soil, given that they did not reside there, the memorandum could facilitate depositions of suspects in Iran.

The Argentine Congress, with a government majority, approved the accord with Iran in less than a month. It was an arguable approval, since it could be said to have conceded sovereignty and Argentine jurisdiction to another country. However, as noted earlier, Iran did not ratify the agreement, and two Argentinian courts declared it unconstitutional — meaning there were no concrete outcomes from that agreement.

A few days before his death, Nisman warned during a TV interview — with visible vitality and energy — that he would present evidence of an attempted cover-up by the Kirchner government. He attributed this alleged cover-up to secret negotiations involving the exchange of Iranian oil for Argentine meat and grains. Government representatives ridiculed the charge and promised that they would confront Nisman in Congress “cleats first” (utilizing a soccer metaphor, foreshadowing an all-out fight).

The Argentine president initially referred to Nisman’s death via Facebook, asking herself rhetorically, “What could lead someone to take his life?” She placed the word “suicide” between question marks (in Spanish, question marks precede and follow a word or phrase). But the next day, in the midst of an atmosphere of great suspicion in the country, she went on to say that she had no evidence — but nevertheless certainty — that there had been a murder. A few days later, she spoke on national radio and television, giving credit to the assassination theory while rejecting Nisman’s charge against her government. She asserted that Nisman might not have written the accusation himself and that the writing was not that of a lawyer; and she suggested at the same time that a conspiracy was afoot, one in which she was the intended victim more than the dead jurist. In other words, Nisman’s bona fides were being questioned even after his death.

Kirchner did not mention the case again except in a lengthy televised speech, where she mentioned it in passing by incriminating a collaborator of Nisman who, she said, procured the weapon for him, and she did not express any word of condolence to Nisman’s family. Kirchner then traveled to China on a trade mission.


The Bishops’ Condolences

The bishops of the executive committee of the Argentine Bishops’ Conference, in the name of all the bishops, did express their condolences to Nisman’s relatives two days after his death was known. They were in sync with the pained words of persons and institutions. “We the bishops express in the first place our affection and prayer for the mom [they used the familiar word for mother] and her whole family, asking the good God the consolation of faith. We extend these same sentiments to the persons close to his affection and work.”

They added: “As shepherds, we share the shock, perplexity and doubts that affect Argentinians these days. Nevertheless, we trust that the institutions of the republic will be able to overcome the shadows of impunity that harm the health of democracy.” The bishops asked authorities and all politicians to do all they could, with honesty and investigative capacity, to find the truth. And they encouraged everyone to “maintain calm and cautiousness in judgments and firmness and perseverance in the search for the truth.”

The Argentine Bishops’ Conference is headed by Archbishop José María Arancedo of Santa Fe, and, since last November, its first vice president is Francis’ hand-picked successor at the helm of the Buenos Aires Archdiocese, Cardinal Mario Poli, who is very close to him. It is not known whether these Churchmen were in touch with the Pope before the bishops’ executive committee issued their statement on the Nisman affair. But both are said to be of the same mind as Jorge Bergoglio; both have rubbed shoulders with him for years.


The Pope’s Prudential Silence

 “The Argentine Bishops’ Conference has already spoken, and the Pope refers back to the bishops of his country,” a Vatican Secretariat of State source told Elisabetta Piqué, Rome correspondent for the Buenos Aires daily La Nación.

“The Pope does not have information to say anything else other than what the bishops said; he does not have more facts in order to judge,” added the source, who admitted that “the Holy Father follows with sorrow” these events in his country.

“With his silence, the Pope respects the Argentine Church, which, ultimately, has the primary responsibility for speaking if she considers it prudent,” noted Pope Francis biographer Sergio Rubin in the Buenos Aires daily Clarín on Feb. 4. Rubin does not doubt that Pope Francis has political talent, and he thinks that one needs to know how to interpret his prudence — that is, how to read his silence. He also explained that the main spiritual leader of the world is simultaneously a head of state and must not voice his opinion without solid reasons or without hope that his words can contribute to the common good — without interfering inappropriately in the internal affairs of any nation, even his own. And, since it is his own country, he must especially avoid fanning flames.

Rubin said Nisman’s death is murky and remains a great enigma, and one should not venture opinions based on conjectures, “as the president did so irresponsibly.” Rubin based his analysis on a conversation he had with a source close to Pope Francis. And he concludes: “It is obvious that the word of the Pope should not contribute to the generalized confusion.” Another Argentine ecclesiastical source notes that one cannot give an opinion based on intuition.


The Religious Perspective

From the religious point of view, Jews are more directly touched than Catholics: The association bombed was Jewish, most of the victims were Jewish, and Nisman was also a Jew and was buried in a Jewish cemetery. Muslims are also more involved: The suspects under an international arrest warrant are Shiite Muslim government agents. Curiously, the foreign-affairs minister who would have signed the memorandum of understanding with Iran — a document that is criticized by many Jews in Argentina — is the former Argentine ambassador to the U.S., Héctor Timerman, and he is Jewish.

To place this into context, the Islamic Centre of the Argentine Republic (CIRA) immediately and forcefully condemned the AMIA attack in 1994 and deplored the death of Nisman. Argentina is a country that characteristically has a very good rapport among these three religious communities, something that seems unusual in the world, even exemplary. In 2010, Pope Francis, as cardinal and archbishop of Buenos Aires, visited both the AMIA building in homage to the victims and the CIRA, and he was a very close friend of one of CIRA’s presidents, the late Adel Made.

As Pope, in July of 2013, he received in his Vatican residence victims of the AMIA attack. And on the 20th anniversary of the bombing, Francis sent a message to their relatives asking “that justice be done.” He recorded the message on the mobile phone of Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin-American Jewish Congress. The message was seen by an emotional crowd gathered in the street in front of AMIA and was attended by Cardinal Poli, Pope Francis’ successor as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Nisman’s death has shocked Argentinians, no matter what their religion. Nisman’s funeral procession was applauded and greeted by respectful citizens throughout its path, and there were people who went up to touch the hearse and afterwards made the Sign of the Cross.


Argentinians Are Shocked

The National Justice and Peace Committee, comprised of Catholic laity in connection with the bishops, declared that “this grave and sad episode cannot make us forget that the terrorist attack against AMIA remains unpunished and unclear and that not only the Jewish community, but all of us Argentinians, have been victims of it.” It also underlined that Nisman’s recent accusations questioned the actions of very high authorities and that from them clear explanations need to come.

The Association of Catholic Lawyers observed with “astonishment” and “enormous preoccupation the violent death of a prosecutor of the nation,” and it declared that “it is not possible to isolate this event from the circumstances that the civil servant was going through in relation to the tasks he was responsible for and that led him to formulate a grave charge against the highest authorities of the executive power.”

Various bishops added their voices to the official pronouncements of the Argentine episcopate. Archbishop Carlos Ñáñez of Córdoba preached that it is “indispensable that the truth be known.”

“We must react, asking for justice, that this be cleared up and that the whole society say: This can never happen again,” said Bishop Adolfo Uriona of Río Cuarto.

“The violent death of a prosecutor of the republic has left us Argentines and the world perplexed. Someone the day after the event told me, ‘Poor fatherland!’” declared Bishop Juan Rubén Martínez of Posadas.

This year, principal Jewish organizations refused to attend the annual official International Day of Remembrance of Holocaust Victims ceremony organized by the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Colleagues of Alberto Nisman convoked a march of silence for Feb. 18, the one-month anniversary of his death. On calling for it, the theme of silence has been given a new twist, a meaning that is far from disinterest. Federal prosecutor Guillermo Marijuan explained: “We want the silence to mean the peace that we need and that the investigators need to find the truth and to find out what happened.” Another prosecutor, Carlos Stornelli, suggested that the case was not a suicide, by warning: “This case is the first, but it might not be the last.”

Jorge Rouillon writes from

Buenos Aires.