Shortly before Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead with a bullet in his head, he accused Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez, and others in her government of covering up what he said was Iran's involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center.
Nisman claimed that those involved in the cover-up included Foreign Minister Hector Timerman — a particularly sensitive accusation not only because of his position but because of his background.
Timerman is Jewish and one of the founders of the human rights group Americas Watch, one of several precursors to Human Rights Watch. He became active in human rights after his father, Jacobo Timerman, was seized by Argentina's military dictatorship in 1977. After his release, Jacobo Timerman achieved international renown with his book detailing the government's abuses, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number.
In an exclusive interview Friday with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Timerman said that he had attempted to help find those involved in the 1994 bombing that killed 85 people and remains unsolved, not cover up for those responsible.
"I can tell you we have done everything possible, the president and myself, to help the judge to bring justice to the victims of the attack on the Jewish center," Timerman told NPR. "I have enough evidence to show the accusation [against me] was false, or was wrong at least."
Nisman accused Timerman of carrying out secret diplomacy with Iran that was intended to shield Iran from being implicated in the attack. According to Nisman, Timerman tried to get Interpol notices canceled for five Iranians who were wanted for questioning.
"He was accusing me of something that I was not able by law to commit, to withdraw the orders of arrest of the Iranian suspects of putting the bomb in the Jewish center," Timerman said. "That is impossible because by law only the judge can do that."
In Nisman's account, Argentina was negotiating to get Iranian oil in exchange for Argentine wheat, and as part of the deal Iran would not be implicated in the attack. But in the interview, Timerman said this was not plausible.
"Everybody who knows something about the oil business knows that Argentina cannot use Iranian oil, because it is a very heavy oil and we cannot process such a heavy oil," he said.
Asked why he was talking to the Iranians, Timerman said he was attempting to get them to cooperate with Argentina's investigation in the bombing.
"There is a law in Iran that forbids [the extradition of] Iranian citizens," Timerman said. "And there is a law in Argentina that forbids judging someone in absentia. ... So the only way to move forward was to sign an agreement with Iran to allow the judge of Argentina to go to Tehran to interrogate the suspects."
The foreign minister said he supported Nisman's investigation but was not prepared to say who might be responsible for the 1994 bombing. The case, Timerman said, needs to be settled in court:
"Unless there is a judge who says, 'This person is guilty and this is the punishment,' it doesn't matter what I believe. I did what I did because I trusted Mr. Nisman's investigation. That was why I was helping the judge to go to Tehran to use Mr. Nisman's evidence against the Iranians. But I cannot say the Iranians are guilty. But as a person who was persecuted in my life, [I] never make a judgment against somebody unless there is a judge who says the person is guilty or innocent. So I have to wait until the judge declares who is behind the attack."
Timerman also said he believed there were Argentines involved in the case but that the possibility hasn't been investigated properly.
"You know that there is a local connection that has to be investigated, and you know that the judge told Mr. Nisman to focus on the local connection, something that he never did," Timerman said. "I think that there is a local connection, there is an international connection."
Fernandez has alleged that Nisman was murdered, possibly by Argentine intelligence agents.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This week, we've been following the story of the mysterious death of a prosecutor in Argentina and the huge controversy it's caused there. Alberto Nisman was investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people. He had linked that crime to Iran. But last week, he was found in his apartment with a bullet to the head. He had accused Argentina's president and others in her government of taking part in a cover-up. Well, now one of the central figures of the story, the foreign minister of Argentina, has spoken exclusively to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro by telephone and she joins us now. Lourdes, tell us about Foreign Minister Hector Timerman and why he's important in this case.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Yeah, Hector Timerman is the foreign minister, as you mentioned. He's also a prominent member of the Argentine Jewish community here, as was Nisman. Nisman named him in particular of carrying out a parallel secret diplomacy with Iran that was intent on shielding Iran from accusations that it was behind the 1994 bombing that was the worst terror attack in Argentine history. In particular, he said Timerman was trying to get five Interpol Red Notices canceled for five Iranian suspects in the case that Argentina wanted to interview. This is what he said.
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HECTOR TIMERMAN: I never ever in my life asked Interpol to do that.
SIEGEL: But why did he say Nisman said he was doing that and how does he respond?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, Nisman's accusation was that this was all a plot to get oil from Iran in exchange for wheat, that Argentina was going to sort of soft-pedal the Iran issue to get that deal done. This is a nation with a lot of energy problems, so that was the motive said Nisman. Timerman just denied that flatly. He said Iranian oil is too heavy for Argentina to process, so there's no motive for what Nisman alleged.
TIMERMAN: Argentina cannot use Iranian oil because it is a very heavy oil and we cannot process such a heavy oil.
SIEGEL: So he's saying that oil from Iran is too heavy to be used by Argentina. If indeed they weren't talking about oil, how does Timerman explain his talks with Iran? What were they talking about, according to him?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, he said he was trying to get access to the Iranian suspects. That his sole purpose in those negotiations, he says, was trying to get the two sides to talk. He says Iran doesn't allow extradition of its citizens, and Argentina does not allow trial in absentia. So this, he contends, was the only way to move forward in the case - to allow a judge, an Argentinian judge, to travel to Iran and interview those suspects. That, he says, was his sole purpose.
SIEGEL: And who does the Argentine foreign minister think was responsible for the bombing?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, let's remind everyone here - this is a bombing that 21 years later has still not been resolved. I asked him exactly that question, and he said he trusted Mr. Nisman's initial investigation that pointed to Iran, but he said this has to be judged in a court of law.
TIMERMAN: I cannot say that the Iranians are really guilty. I have to wait until the judge determines who is behind the attack.
SIEGEL: He's saying he cannot say the Iranians are guilty, he has to wait to see what a judge says. Do I have that right?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, that's exactly right. He did say that he did feel there was an Argentinian or local connection to the bombing in 1994 that had not really been investigated and that he felt should be.
SIEGEL: Now, the president of Argentina, de Kirchner, has come out and said that Nisman was murdered possibly by Argentine intelligence agents. What does Timerman, the foreign minister, say about Nisman's death?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, of course this is the central issue. He did not want to speculate, but he said he felt Nisman's death was being used to discredit the government. He accused the media group Clarin, which is an old foe of the Kirchner government, of adding to that. He also spoke at length about his own history of being persecuted under the dictatorship of the history of his family as defenders of human rights. His father was dissident journalist Jacobo Timerman. And so he said he would never obstruct a human rights investigation like the AMIA bombing because of his own personal history, and he left it at that.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Buenos Aires. Lourdes, thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.