Court in Argentina Dismisses Charges Against Kirchner in Bombing Case

BUENOS AIRES — A court in Argentina has dismissed a criminal case against Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner that accused her of conspiring with Iran to cover up that country’s suspected involvement in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

The ruling, issued late Thursday, was the latest twist in a legal drama that took a shocking turn in 2015 when the prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, died from a gunshot wound the night before he was scheduled to present what he described as explosive evidence against Mrs. Kirchner, then the president.

The bombing investigation and Mr. Nisman’s death have been a source of frenzied speculation and political infighting in Argentina in recent years, raising troubling questions about the politicization of the judicial system.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel is the latest courtroom victory for Mrs. Kirchner, who governed the country from 2007 to 2015. It follows a pattern of Argentina’s judiciary showing leniency toward politicians when they are in power and heightened scrutiny when they leave office.

As legal cases against Mrs. Kirchner have fizzled, the president who succeeded her, Mauricio Macri, a center-right politician voted out of office in 2019, has become the target of a politically charged investigation. This week, a judge ordered Mr. Macri to testify regarding allegations that his government illegally spied on the families of crew members of a submarine that sank in 2017.

The bombing case stems from a memorandum of understanding Argentina and Iran signed in 2013. It called for the two countries to set up a joint commission to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association, which killed 85 people.

The agreement would have allowed an Argentine judge to travel to Iran to interrogate those accused of planning the bombing, whom Tehran had refused to extradite.

The agreement never came into effect and was ultimately declared unconstitutional in 2015. Critics assailed Mrs. Kirchner for negotiating with a government that many Argentines suspected of shielding the masterminds of the attack. Iran has long denied any wrongdoing.

Mr. Nisman, who had been appointed to jump-start the languishing investigation into the bombing, claimed the memo was part of a plan by Mrs. Kirchner and other high-ranking officials to trade impunity for a group of Iranian officials accused of playing a role in the bombing in exchange for commercial deals. The prosecutor said it amounted to “treason.”

Alberto Nisman in Buenos Aires in 2009. His mysterious death in 2015 has been a source of frenzied speculation and political infighting in Argentina in recent years.Credit…Juan Mabromata/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mrs. Kirchner has said negotiating with Iran was the only way to move forward with an investigation that had been paralyzed for years.

After Mr. Nisman was found dead on Jan. 18, 2015, the bombing case stalled in the courts until a judge in 2017 indicted Mrs. Kirchner and other officials in her former administration. (Mr. Nisman’s death remains unsolved.)

In its ruling on Thursday, the three-judge panel said that the case should not go to trial because the agreement with Iran, regardless of its merits, “did not constitute a crime.”

The decision infuriated families of the victims and Jewish groups in Argentina.

“We’ve been waiting for three years for them to set a date for the trial, and now they decide that it isn’t a crime?” Tomás Farini Duggan, a lawyer representing family members of the victims, said in a local radio interview.

Mr. Duggan predicted the case would eventually reach the Supreme Court. Jewish leaders said they looked forward to having a day in court.

“Of course we don’t agree with this decision; in order to determine whether there was a crime or not, there must be a trial first,” said Jorge Knoblovits, the head of the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas, which represents more than 100 Jewish organizations in Argentina.

Allies of Mrs. Kirchner and her co-defendants in the case saw the ruling as vindication.

“It was the first time in six years that we were heard by impartial judges,” said one defendant, Juan Martín Mena, who is now deputy justice minister.

Mrs. Kirchner continues to face unrelated charges in several corruption investigations. A separate case that accused her of defrauding the government through the dollar futures market was dismissed this year.

Mr. Macri is also facing several corruption-related investigations that his allies have characterized as persecution by judges friendly with the current administration.

The tit-for-tat nature of the accusations has meant that courthouses have often become the stage for political fights to play out.

“Pursuing judicial cases has become an instrument of politics to attack a rival,” said Catalina Smulovitz, a political science professor at the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires. “This doesn’t just erode the reputation of the people who are implicated, but it really erodes the prestige and perception of how well the justice system functions as a whole.”

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