Thousands call for justice in Argentina's "Silent March of the Umbrellas"
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Thousands call for justice in Argentina's "Silent March of the Umbrellas"

It seemed like the latest cruel twist of fate for Argentina. A few minutes before 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the grey clouds that had gathered over Buenos Aires throughout the day erupted in a torrential downpour, soaking teenagers, office workers and retirees to the skin. A grim joke circulated: “Néstor Kirchner’s taking a piss.”

Most in attendance, though, were prepared for anything. The umbrellas and ponchos came out, and as many as 400,000 Argentineans began their march in the capital to commemorate prosecutor Alberto Nisman.

Amid torrential rain, marchers set out from Argentina's National Congress. Photo: Laurie Blair

Amid torrential rain, marchers set out from Argentina’s National Congress. Photo: Laurie Blair

Nisman was found dead in his apartment on January 18 with a gunshot to the forehead, a Bersa .22 handgun lying by his side. His body was discovered less than 24 hours before he was due to present damning evidence before Congress: evidence amassed in a 300-page dossier alleging that President Cristina Kirchner and senior officials concealed the truth about the biggest terrorist attack in Argentinean history.

Some at the march carried sodden posters bearing the smiling face of the prosecutor, in charge since 2004 of the investigation in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead and hundreds wounded.

Others, like the judicial officials who convened the march, bore black banners with white lettering: “Honor to Nisman: March of Silence,” “Cry for me, Argentina,” and “They extinguished Nisman, but set hope alight.”

Behind Nisman’s former colleagues came his family, among them his ex-wife Sandra Arroyo and their two young daughters, dressed in mourning. The procession shuffled the two kilometers from the capital’s National Congress to the historic Plaza de Mayo, the snail’s pace dictated by the press of the crowds lining the streets. Occasional chants of “Justice” and “Argentina,” ripples of rhythmic clapping, and sporadic thunderclaps broke the silence.

The crowd parts for the car containing several of Alberto Nisman's relatives. Photo: Laurie Blair

The crowds part for a car carrying Alberto Nisman’s relatives. Photo: Laurie Blair

The procession merged into the crowds in front of the AMIA investigation unit’s office, a stone’s throw from the Casa Rosada presidential palace. Senior human rights judge Julio Piumato addressed the soaked crowds, now in darkness, from the back of a truck.

“We do this calmly, in peace. For the pain that the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman caused us, joining the feelings of his family and in respect to his memory, we ask a minute of silence from the hundreds of thousands present at this tribute.”

The minute’s quiet ended with the singing of the national anthem. Hundreds of candles illuminated the umbrellas.

Before long, the protests — replicated in dozens of cities across the country and worldwide — melted away. If the line of federal police behind the three-meter barriers before the Casa Rosada were hoping for a fight, as with the march two days after Nisman’s death, they didn’t get it.

Demonstrators hold a candlelit vigil for Alberto Nisman in the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires. Photo: Laurie Blair

Demonstrators hold a candlelit vigil for Alberto Nisman in the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires. Photo: Laurie Blair

What, if anything, will be the result of Wednesday’s march? For one thing, it showed just how many Argentineans are angry about the murky web of judicial failure and government corruption that surrounds Nisman’s death.

The initial hypothesis of suicide — proclaimed by a “convinced” President Kirchner on Facebook and Twitter a day after the discovery of his body — subsequently gave way to one of “induced suicide.” Kirchner is now “convinced” that disgruntled former intelligence agents murdered Nisman to discredit her government.

An irregular investigation

Investigating prosecutor Vivian Fein has yet to rule out any hypothesis. Yet Fein herself has come under fire for the investigation. On Tuesday, a witness called to Nisman’s apartment within hours of the discovery of his body came forward with claims that the initial forensic examination was mismanaged.

“I’m scared, but there were lots of things that made me angry,” Natalia Fernández told local daily Clarín. “They were drinking mate and asking for medialunas [pastries]. They were touching everything. There were around fifty people. The prosecutor [Fein] asked, ‘shall we leave it there and carry on tomorrow?'”

Demonstrators pass a monument to Eva Peron unveiled by President Cristina Kirchner in 2011.

Demonstrators pass a monument to Eva Perón unveiled by President Cristina Kirchner in 2011. Photo: Laurie Blair

Police officers rifled through and wrote on the stacks of AMIA dossiers on Nisman’s desk, said Fernández, a 26-year-old waitress who works nearby in the upscale Puerto Madero neighborhood. Officers made coffee in Nisman’s coffee pot, taking it from the desk. They went through his cell phone, despite advice from forensics officials not to touch it, and cracked jokes when they brought out his body.

Fein, along with government officials, has since dismissed Fernández’s allegations as “crazy.” Harder to explain away is the estimated gap of 12 hours between Nisman’s death and the discovery of his body. His police protection unit — who Nisman claimed not to trust days before his death — took hours to report that Nisman had failed to answer multiple phone calls.

The presence of government intelligence chief Sergio Berni on the scene, before reporters or police arrived, is also under investigation as “severely irregular.”

Presidential flip-flops

Nisman had alleged that the president, along with Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and several other cabinet members, agreed to drop an Interpol arrest warrant for Iranian officials who allegedly worked with Hezbollah operatives to plant the AMIA bomb. In exchange, Argentina was to receive preferential trade deals, including cheap oil.

Demonstrators brave the rain on Buenos Aires’s Avenida de Mayo. Photo: Laurie Blair

Kirchner has argued that the charges are completely fabricated, part of a U.S.-backed “judicial coup” intended to bring down her government, and that Nisman was on the CIA’s payroll. Such claims will be harder to maintain now that Nisman’s replacement on the AMIA case has repeated his predecessor’s allegations, although stopping short of calling for the president’s formal investigation.

The president largely avoided Buenos Aires in the days leading up to the march, instead relocating to a stronghold of her traditional support base in El Calafate, Patagonia, and addressing a ceremony on Wednesday to mark full operational capacity at the Néstor Kirchner nuclear plant, named after her late husband, who served as president from 2003 to 2007.

In what seemed like a veiled reference to Nisman, Kirchner claimed that her husband, and the couple’s ideological inspiration President Juan Domingo Perón (1946-55, 1973-4), “are men who remain in history, unlike those who barely last five minutes on TV or in the newspapers.”

But if Wednesday’s march is anything to go by, Nisman’s memory, and his attempt to shine light on one of the darkest episodes of Argentinean history, won’t fade away so easily — much as President Kirchner, her cabinet, and an array of shady intelligence agents and judicial officials may want it to.