BUENOS AIRES—Argentine Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio on Thursday charged former President Cristina Kirchner and other senior officials of her administration with obstruction of justice and high treason.
He demanded their immediate “preventive arrest” in connection with the alleged murder of a prosecutor investigating their ties to Iran and efforts to shield those allegedly responsible for the bombing of a Jewish community center in 1994.
Kirchner, flamboyant and famously law-bending, is likely to spend Thursday night in jail following a daybreak raid that was splashed on the front pages of Argentine newspapers and opened all news broadcasts.
If convicted of treason, Kirchner, who left office two years ago, along with her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, and three associates could spend the rest of their lives in jail.
Bonadio asked that Kirchner’s immunity as a sitting member of the Argentine senate—she was sworn in a week ago—be lifted to facilitate her arrest, a pro forma request. Timerman, who is battling cancer, was granted house arrest.
The dramatic headlines Argentinians awoke to on Thursday have provoked massive public expressions of joy and relief on one side of the fractured political aisle, and furious accusations of politicization and treachery on the other. And downtown Buenos Aires streets quickly turned into an dense maze of crowds and protests.
Bonadio is unlikely to feel intimidated. He is best known for an incident in which, assaulted on the street, he pulled out his personal weapon and shot his assailant dead.
Since leaving office Kirchner has faced numerous allegations of financial impropriety and abuse of power, but the charges are dwarfed by treason, or, in Spanish, traición a la Patria.
Ricardo Saénz, an Argentine federal prosecutor, says “this was all along the worst case alleged against her. All the corruption files deal, at the end of the day, with money. But this would have cemented impunity for the masterminds of the terror attack on AMIA. This is entirely a different category of crime, a government acting in a way that is practically inconceivable, negotiating impunity for masterminds of terror.”
The arrests, Saénz says, were predictable. “This is a very severe crime.”
AMIA is the Spanish-language acronym for the main Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that was demolished by a bomb in July, 1994. Eighty-five Argentine citizens were killed and hundreds were injured.
It was, in the days pre-9/11, the worst attack perpetrated against civilians since the Second World War.
Years of bureaucratic mishandling and outright corruption obstructed a proper investigation of the crime until late 2004, when then-President Néstor Kirchner, Cristina Kirchner’s husband and predecessor, appointed Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor, to direct the investigation.
Nisman eventually secured Interpol red notices—international arrest warrants—against five senior Iranian officials whom he identified as the bombing’s masterminds, acting through Hezbollah operatives.
Tehran never turned over its officials, one of whom was a former foreign minister, but it did seek a backchannel solution to the standoff.
In 2011, Pepe Eliaschev, a veteran Argentine journalist, published a bombshell revelation: The Argentine government had signed a secret memorandum with Iran, which to all effects lifted Argentina’s demand the Iranians face Argentine courts.
Eliaschev’s reporting detailed negotiations handled by Timerman, then the foreign minister and a son of the renowned Argentine journalist and human rights activist Jacobo Timerman, that would have canceled out Nisman’s efforts to bring the accused to justice.
The president of Argentina had been caught red-handed betraying her own justice system—and her own citizens—for unclear ends.
Kirchner vociferously denied the allegations, but the existence of the secret accord was proven true in 2014, months before Eliaschev’s November 2014 death from cancer.
On Jan. 14, 2015, Nisman, 51, announced that he was charging then-President Christina Kirchner with treason for interfering with his investigation into the AMIA bombing by negotiating away justice for 85 murdered Argentinians.
Four days later, hours before presenting his case to Argentina’s Congress, Nisman was found at home, dead, with a bullet in his head.
The same day, a nervous Kirchner, clad head-to-toe in white, announced on Facebook that Nisman had killed himself—and a few days later, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, visiting Europe, repeated her claim.
In the months following Nisman’s death, a series of magistrates dismissed his decade-long investigation and the charges against Kirchner, clearing her and leaving the 1994 terror attack entirely unresolved.
In December 2015, Kirchner’s party lost the presidential election, clearing the way for a renewed effort to follow through on Nisman’s probe. Last October, the Argentine gendarmerie declared that Nisman was murdered by two individuals who invaded his home.
No one has been charged in the prosecutor’s murder.
“If they hadn’t killed Nisman, today’s events would likely never have taken place,” mused Paul Warszawski, a lawyer very close to the Nisman case, without specifying who “they” are.
“Nisman’s death proved that public officials are not untouchable. If, instead of killing him, they had buried his case in endless procedure and legal machinations, it is likely Kirchner may never have had to explain her acts. If instead of killing him they’d just buried his case, it would all have taken longer, and who knows. But with him dead…”
Nisman’s death provoked an unprecedented protest in Argentina, in which almost half a million people braved pouring rain to demand justice for the young and popular prosecutor.