Prosecutor seeks to charge Argentine president with obstructing probe

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner gestures during a ceremony at the Casa Rosada Government Palace in Buenos Aires June 17, 2008. De Kirchner said on Tuesday she will send a bill to Congress aimed at ratifying a soy export tax that has set off a farmers' strike and a political crisis. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci (ARGENTINA)

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner gestures during a ceremony at the Casa Rosada Government Palace in Buenos Aires June 17, 2008. De Kirchner said on Tuesday she will send a bill to Congress aimed at ratifying a soy export tax that has set off a farmers’ strike and a political crisis. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci (ARGENTINA)

A federal prosecutor in Argentina on Friday requested that formal charges be brought against President Cristina Kirchner.

BUENOS AIRES—A federal prosecutor here asked a judge on Friday to charge Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and other officials with conspiring with Iran to obstruct a probe into a 1994 bombing, reviving an explosive case that has gripped this nation.

The judge must now decide whether to start a full investigation and pursue an indictment in the case, which was first brought by another prosecutor, who was found dead the day before he was to present evidence in the Argentine Congress last month.

“This conspiracy [to obstruct the investigation] would have been orchestrated and set up by high-ranking government officials,” wrote federal prosecutor Gerardo Pollicita, supporting the allegations made by his late colleague Alberto Nisman.

Mrs. Kirchner’s government renewed its denials of the coverup allegations.

“I never, ever received an order from the president, Cristina Kirchner, to sabotage the investigation,” Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who the prosecutors cited as another alleged participant in the obstruction, told The Wall Street Journal.

Constitutional experts say the new move against Mrs. Kirchner, whose presidency ends in 10 months, is unlikely to lead to her impeachment. Her allies control the Senate and complex cases of this kind take years to complete in Argentina.

But the latest twist to the mysterious case is a political blow to Mrs. Kirchner’s Peronist movement and the leader herself, who is struggling with a stagnant economy racked by one of the world’s highest rates of inflation. The president has the support of only one in four Argentines, polls show, with 70% of citizens believing that Mr. Nisman was assassinated even as an autopsy maintained his death was a suicide.

The president’s pronouncements since the death—first positing that Mr. Nisman killed himself, then that it wasn’t a suicide while accusing him of shoddy investigative work—has led to skepticism among many Argentines.

“This shows that Mr. Nisman’s investigation has merit, as the request indicates the possibility that there was a crime,” said Ricardo Monner Sans, a prominent Argentine lawyer and anticorruption activist. “But this is also a significant political development.”

The death of Mr. Nisman, who was found dead with a bullet wound to his head on Jan. 18, has prompted prosecutors to organize what they called “a silent march” on Wednesday that is expected to draw leading opposition politicians and civil society groups. The idea, organizers say, is to show their support for Mr. Nisman’s work while criticizing the Kirchner administration’s sharp reaction against the prosecutor’s investigation.

The Kirchner administration called it part of a plan to destabilize the government.

“We’ll let them have their silence. They have always liked silence,” Mrs. Kirchner said Thursday in a speech to supporters. “Because they don’t have anything to say or because they can’t say what they think.”

Mr. Nisman, who was 51, had spent a decade leading an investigation into the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, or AMIA, that killed 85 people. He had accused a range of Iranian officials in 2006 of having masterminded the attack, which some Jewish groups call the bloodiest single strike on Jews since World War II.

Mrs. Kirchner’s decision in 2013 to form what she called “a truth commission” with Iran to investigate the crime then led Mr. Nisman to conclude that her government planned a coverup, he had publicly said before his death.

Opposition politicians and people in the judicial system here warned that the deal took away Mr. Nisman’s authority, and a court in 2014 ruled that the deal was unconstitutional.

Mr. Timerman, in the interview, defended the commission, saying that it was designed to permit Argentine investigators to travel to Iran to interview suspects, who under Iranian law could not be extradited. “The claims are baseless,” said the minister, who has been supported by a former Interpol director who worked on the AMIA case.

Critics, though, said that Iran—considered by the U.S. to be a state sponsor of terrorism—wouldn’t have cooperated.

“We are talking about the killing of 85 Argentine citizens,” said Alberto Fernández, a former cabinet chief to Mrs. Kirchner. “How can you justify the fact that you were seeking to negotiate with the killers? “

Prosecutors, judges and groups representing the victims of the AMIA attack say the investigation of the bombing and an earlier attack on the Israeli Embassy that left 29 dead have been marked by ineptitude and corruption.

No one has been convicted of direct involvement in the attacks, though a judge and high-ranking police officials were indicted of organizing a coverup years before Mr. Nisman took over the case. They face a trial this year.

In Mr. Nisman’s recounting of a deal involving Mrs. Kirchner’s government and Iran, an immunity-for-trade plan would free Iran from responsibility in the terror attack, with the two countries exchanging Iranian oil for Argentine grain as they cemented commercial relations.

Mr. Timerman, however, has noted that Argentine refineries are incapable of processing Iranian oil.

Mr. Pollicita’s filing came on the same day that Argentina’s chief prosecutor, Alejandra Gils Carb, appointed a three-man team of prosecutors to take over Mr. Nisman’s investigation into the bombing.

Though people in Argentina’s judicial system consider Ms. Gils Carb an ally of the president, she said in a news conference that she guaranteed the independence of the team “to reach the truth and ensure the continuity of Prosecutor Nisman’s” work.

“This is what I can promise,” she said. “More and more work so that we can provide truth and justice.”

Civic groups and the families of some of the victims of the AMIA attack had demanded nonpartisan replacements for Mr. Nisman amid rising political tension over the unusual circumstances surrounding his death.

Alfredo Popritkin, a former Supreme Court examiner who leads a civic group seeking to foster greater rule of law in Argentina, said he was cautiously optimistic that the investigation would be serious.

“The initial reading of these appointments is that you don’t see an attempt by the Kirchner administration to interfere in the investigation,” Mr. Popritkin said. “On the other hand, they aren’t very well known and haven’t handled high-profile cases, so I would have preferred to see the appointment of prosecutors with strong convictions, known for their independence.”

Sofia Guterman, 73, who lost a daughter in the AMIA bombing, said she welcomed the new turn of events and called for her countrymen to let the investigators work without interference.

“We need to let the courts handle all of this,” she said. “The important thing is that after Mr. Nisman spent 10 years investigating this we can’t let it end up in nothing and forget about it.”

By The Wall Street Journal