Yo Soy Nisman: protesters in Buenos Aires. Photo: ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images
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Bullets, pastries and the rise of the right: Mauricio Macri struggles to recover from a mysterious death

The death of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman provides an opportunity for the right.

By late afternoon on 18 February, the storm clouds were gathering and the drizzle had turned into a downpour. As rain battered the streets of Buenos Aires, a 400,000-strong crowd of protesters initiated a furious call-and-response demanding justice for the deceased federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman.

On 19 January, Nisman was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment, killed by a single bullet to the temple. His death was assumed to have been self-inflicted. Nisman had been due next day to begin presenting a case that would implicate the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in obscuring the role played by Iran – an important trading partner – in the most deadly terrorist attack to take place on Argentinian soil: the 1994 bombing of the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association, which killed 85 people.

A number of unusual events took place over the days that followed. Damián Pachter, the journalist who broke the story of Nisman’s death on Twitter, fled the country, saying he was being stalked by the national intelligence services. In mid-February a witness to the case went public with allegations of “irregularities”, including the mishandling of evidence and the dirtying of the crime scene. Investigators had used Nisman’s coffee-maker and eaten medialunas, Argentinian croissants, on the job.

And yet the most serious accusation came on 5 March when Nisman’s ex-wife, Sandra Arroyo Salgado, a federal judge, presented the results of an independent investigation she had conducted with four forensic experts. Her investigation showed an earlier death time and an irregular bullet angle, that there was no gunpowder on Nisman’s hand, and that his body had been moved. “Nisman’s death wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t a suicide,” she told the press. “He was murdered.”

This in turn angered Viviana Fein, the federal prosecutor assigned to the Nisman case. Fein maintained the official position, which would not rule out suicide, and fired back: “If they’re trying to pressure me, it won’t work.”

Meanwhile, the case Nisman had been preparing came to a halt after being handed to another prosecutor, Gerardo Pollicita. The case against Kirchner was thrown out of court by a judge on 26 February, a decision Pollicita is appealing. Some blame the failure on Nisman’s death. A column in Argentina’s most widely read newspaper, Clarín, speculates that Nisman may have known about additional evidence.

The truth about Nisman’s death may remain obscure but the political implications for President Kirchner are clear. The handling of the investigation makes her government look, at best, incompetent. Her own erratic explanations for Nisman’s death, wavering between suicide and the involvement of renegade spies, have only made things worse. Doubts about Kirchner’s reaction have brought her entire leftist-populist agenda into focus, provoking a wholesale shift to the right. This is good news for her chief opponent, the mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri. There are notable parallels between Macri and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson: a powerful figure who has helped transport improve but has been unable – or unwilling – to keep the rise of housing prices in check. Macri is a staunch neoconservative: he cites Ayn Rand as one of his main influences and often lashes out at Argentina’s immigrant communities.

A poll conducted on 4 March showed Macri leading among presidential hopefuls in the lead-up to elections, due to take place in November this year. “This is directly connected to the Nisman case,” says Raúl Aragón, the political consultant who carried out the study. “After Nisman’s death, Kirchner’s popularity dropped sharply, along with the popularity of her closest ally in the race, Daniel Scioli.”

Yet Kirchner still maintains a strong support base. Thousands gathered to hear her three-hour “legacy” speech at the opening of congress on 1 March (her last, as term limits prevent her from running again). She touted her accomplishments, announced a plan to nationalise the country’s rail network and spoke of her regret over Nisman’s death.

In addition, her foothold in the interior may throw the advantage to her allies. “Macri’s support is strong in Buenos Aires and other large cities, but he will have trouble making headway elsewhere in the country,” says Eduardo Blanco, co-editor of a book on the Kirchner government.

Nevertheless the Nisman case continues to be toxic for Kirchner and her allies. “If stories casting doubt on the handling of the Nisman case stay in the news, Macri will most likely continue to lead,” Aragón says. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.