On Monday evening, Argentine leader Cristina Fernández de Kirchner appeared on television from the Casa Rosada, the country's presidential palace. In a wheelchair and wearing a cast on her left ankle after a recent accident, she announced that a law aimed at dissolving the Argentine Intelligence Secretariat (SI) would be sent to congress for approval. The news came as a further surprise for the nation, still rocked by the news that state prosecutor Alberto Nisman had been found dead the day before he was due to formally accuse the President of attempting to cover up alleged Iranian involvement in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.
A few days earlier, Nisman, the prosecutor in charge of the AMIA case, had released a report alleging that Kirchner had tried to orchestrate a whitewash of the investigation in a bid to pave the way for a deal to trade large quantities of much needed Iranian oil for Argentine grain.
The government had already moved to declassify details of SI operatives who had provided information for Nisman's report, while the president has alleged that rogue intelligence agents were behind his death. "Combating impunity has been a priority of my government," Kirchner said as she announced the plan to dissolve the agency, adding that its structure had remained largely unchanged since the end of the military dictatorship in 1983.
The president called for the creation of a new federal intelligence agency that would "act with national interests in mind," stressing again that the SI "had failed in finding those responsible for the bombings of 1992 and 1994."
A draft bill will be presented to the congress next week.
Prominent opposition figure and Buenos Aires governor Mauricio Macri suggested that Kirchner was attempting to distract the public from Nisman's claims regarding the AMIA case. He told a press conference that the government should stop "playing the victim" and find out how the prosecutor died, adding that Nisman's investigation into the alleged cover-up should be continued.
"This cannot go unpunished nor result in the most dramatic terrorist act in our history going unpunished," said Macri, who intends to run as a candidate in the October presidential election.
The AMIA investigation has long been subject to accusations of official incompetence and even deception. In 2005, Kirchner's late husband and presidential predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, branded it a "national disgrace" and claimed previous governments had covered up facts related to the bombing. Nisman then formally charged six people — five Iranians, including high ranking serving officials, and a now deceased Hezbollah leader — with the attack, and in 2007 Interpol issued arrest warrants for the suspects. Yet still no one has ever been held responsible — a fact Kirchner seized upon as one of the reasons for the proposed dissolution of SI.
Iran has always vehemently denied the accusations against it.
On January 18, in the early hours of the morning, Nisman was found with a bullet wound to the head in his apartment on the 13th floor of a secured complex in Puerto Madero, an upscale neighbourhood in the capital. The gun next to him had been lent to him by a colleague, who later revealed that Nisman had said he had been advised "to look after himself and his daughter" by Jaime Stiusso, a close associate and the former head of the SI. The discrepancies in testimonies of those who were meant to protect Nisman abound, as does speculation that the SI was directly involved in his death.
However, the purging of the intelligence services that Kirchner advocates will not come easily, as many former members of the dictatorship-era SI still hold important establishment posts. And with the October elections fast approaching, she has little time to complete the reform before she is forced to step down by Argentina's constitutional term limits. Even if she is successful, the move may not be sufficient to grant a presidential victory in October to her protegé, Florencio Randazzo, if the Nisman case meanwhile remains unresolved.
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