By Mark P. Lagon, 24 April 2015
On January 18 of this year, Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment, the man who was in charge of the investigation into the attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed 85 people. His death came a day before he was to present to the Congress of the Nation an indictment against President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, pointing to her as the one responsible for negotiations with the Iranian government to bring impunity for those responsible for the attack through the lifting of the red alerts against senior Iranian officials who were involved.
The exact circumstances of Nisman’s death are still unknown, those responsible have not been found. While the theory is reinforced is that it was a case of murder and concealment, the investigation into the episode was sloppy, permanently affected by the actions of the government and the pressure on judges and prosecutors handling the case.
Impunity in the case of Nisman’s death reflects the deterioration of the rule of law in Argentina over the last 12 years as well as the increasing pressure from the government upon civil liberties, the constant attempts by the Executive Branch to exert greater control over the judiciary and the systematic attacks on press freedom.
Allegations of corruption come out daily, with cases ranging from the Vice President, being indicted for illicit enrichment, to the current Ambassador to the OAS, Nilda Garre, identified by press reports as the holder of bank accounts in the United States with tens of millions of dollars. There have even been accusations against the presidential family itself, which say they have amassed great wealth through their main front man, Lázaro Báez.
Press freedom has also deteriorated gradually. Argentina is classified as partly free in the annual report on Freedom of Expression by Freedom House. The government has attempted to curtail or restrict the ability of the media to do its job. This is being done through a media law that sought to put an end to Clarin Group, the news organization with the greatest public audience, through the discriminatory and abusive use of state resources and official advertising, which serve to finance a vast network of semi-official news media, through the concentration of private media in the hands of businessmen attached to the government and through direct attacks and intimidation of journalists.
One recent case was that of journalist Damian Pachter, who had to leave the country for fear of political persecution, after being the first to report on the death of Alberto Nisman, a case which was a cause for concern for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in a press release.
This is not the only area in which the government of Argentina has lost credibility. The truth is that in the economic area, official statistics aren’t seriously believed according to international organizations and academia. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, most financial institutions, experts and respected publications like The Economist consider the official figures from Argentina on inflation, economic development, growth, unemployment and security as false.
The Argentines should seek – through the vote – to resolve the crisis they find themselves in. But there is something that the United States can do, given its global leadership, to prevent impunity. The US Congress is debating an initiative that seeks to convert the Magnitsky Act of 2012-a law holding corrupt figures and those who violate human rights in Russia responsible for their actions – applicable to any country. The law would prevent corrupt officials and human rights violators, including those from Argentina, from traveling to the United States with impunity, from owning property and holding bank accounts in the country.
Argentina has the ability to put an end to endemic government corruption. Some Latin American countries have seen their damaged institutions, their weakened rule of law and freedom of expression marginalized, while government officials get richer and use international markets to hide their fortunes. Argentina is suffering from the same affliction.
In Annual Report on the State of Freedom in the World, Freedom House continues placing Argentina in the “free” category, while despite serious attempts by the government to concentrate public powers in one person (the President), Argentina still counts on democratic mechanisms to solve these problems. The October elections represent an opportunity to reverse the authoritarian advance in the country.
Mark P. Lagon is president of Freedom House. He was Ambassador and Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in the United States.