The year was 1977. The Argentinian military dictatorship’s “dirty war” against leftist militants and thinkers was at its height. Military officers blindfolded Jacobo Timerman, a Jewish newspaper editor, at his home in Buenos Aires and drove him off to a torture center. His son, Hector Timerman, would soon seek exile in the United States, where he became a prominent human rights activist.
But today, Hector Timerman is Argentina’s foreign minister and at the center of a scandal in which he is being accused of something that seems like the opposite of what he has stood for: an alleged cover-up of a terrorist attack that is roiling Argentina’s Jewish community.
As it unfolds, some members of the Jewish community are calling for him to face a communal tribunal — or even be expelled from their midst — for allegedly betraying his own people.
Timerman, who denies any cover-up, defends his actions unabashedly and has declared that his duty as foreign minister is first and foremost to Argentina.
It was the recent death under mysterious circumstances of Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor who had been leading the investigation into the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center here that stirred the controversy already surrounding Timerman into a furor.
For more than a decade, Nisman had been probing the terrorist bombing of the community center of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, known also by its Spanish acronym AMIA. The bombing killed 85 people and injured hundreds.
But on January 18, the investigator was found dead in his apartment, days after he filed controversial charges against Timerman and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Nisman had a bullet in his head, and the pistol that fired it lay beneath him. On February 3, it was disclosed that investigators had discovered drafts of arrest warrants in Nisman’s home garbage for Timerman, Kirchner and others. The investigation into Nisman’s death is ongoing. But it remains unclear whether it was murder or suicide.
In a criminal complaint that Nisman was due to present to Congress the day after his death, he alleged that Timerman, a co-founder during his New York exile of a group that became Human Rights Watch, sought to shield Iranian officials allegedly responsible for masterminding the attack. In exchange for Argentina securing the removal of these officials from Interpol’s wanted list, Nisman charged, Iran was ready to grant Argentina a favorable bilateral trade deal.
Nisman based his complaint on intercepted phone calls between people believed to represent the Argentine and Iranian governments in secret negotiations. But the deal was foiled, Nisman wrote, because Timerman could not get Interpol to lift the arrest warrants. In one of the intercepts, from May 2013, a go-between for Iran said Timerman had “messed up.”
Since Nisman’s death, Timerman, 61, has opened up to the foreign news media to defend himself. He pointed to an email he received from Interpol’s former secretary general, which attested that he had never requested the lifting of arrest warrants for the Iranians. He claimed that only the Argentine judge overseeing the case could request the lifting of the warrants in any case. Timerman also claimed that Iran could not provide Argentina with the refined oil it required and that private agro-business companies — not the Argentine government — controlled exports of the grains, like wheat and soybeans, that were to be traded to Iran for oil.
“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,” he told National Public Radio in a recent interview.
Meanwhile, after having suggested that Nisman’s death was a suicide in the immediate aftermath of his death, Kirchner now points to murder. Rogue factions of Argentina’s intelligence service, she says, had a hand in events surrounding his death. “They used [Nisman] alive, and then they needed him dead,” she wrote on her website.
During the years of Argentina’s military dictatorship, Timerman lived in exile in New York. He was a co-founder of Americas Watch, which monitored human rights in the Western Hemisphere. The group eventually joined with others scrutinizing human rights in other regions to become the worldwide monitoring organization Human Rights Watch. During his exile in New York, Timerman also earned a masters degree in international relations at Columbia University.
In 1989, Timerman returned to Argentina. Here he became a journalist like his father, who by then had written the famous memoir on his jailing and torture, “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number,” and a book that criticized Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Hector Timerman joined the government soon after Néstor Kirchner, the president’s late husband and predecessor, was voted into office in 2003. It was a move that Timerman says was consistent with his commitment to human rights. Kirchner overturned amnesty laws that had shielded dictatorship-era officials so that they could now be prosecuted.
In Kirchner’s government, Timerman served for a time as Argentina’s ambassador to the United States and was appointed foreign minister in 2010.
Timerman has been a prominent and involved member of Argentina’s Jewish community. In the past, he attended synagogue regularly on Friday evenings. He also prayed with tefilin in the mornings. He says he still believes in Judaism as a religion.
But his family’s relationship with the local Jewish community, and with Israel, was nevertheless a complex one.
His father, one of Argentina’s most prominent newspaper editors and publishers, immigrated with his parents to Argentina from Ukraine in the Soviet Union as a small child and had a lifelong, passionate commitment to Zionism. In 1975, soon after the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution (since retracted) condemning Zionism as racism, he penned a furious, widely read rebuttal entitled unabashedly, “Why I Am a Zionist.”
Yet when Jacobo Timerman was arrested, held incommunicado and, as it was later revealed, tortured, Argentina’s organized Jewish community said little. One year after his imprisonment, when Timerman was transferred from prison to house arrest, the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations, the community’s umbrella group, issued a mild statement approving the move.
Jacobo Timerman and his family condemned what they saw as the passivity of the Argentine Jewish establishment. He noted that that his jailers interrogated him intensively about his activities as a Zionist and as a Jew, frequently implying his complicity in imagined Zionist conspiracies.
During the imprisonment of Hector’s father, Israel, which had close relations with Argentina’s military dictators, pursued a policy of quiet diplomacy seeking Jacobo Timerman’s release but also made no public statements on his behalf. In a 2001 account about his father’s ordeal, Hector related that Israel’s ambassador to Argentina, Ram Nirgad, visited Jacobo during his period of house arrest and asked him to sign a letter saying he had been well treated by the government to help enable his release. His father refused, Hector recounted, saying he’d rather remain in detention.
In 1979, under intense public pressure from the administration of President Jimmy Carter to release him, Argentina’s military dictators stripped Jacobo Timerman of his citizenship and property, and deported him to Israel. His family followed him there.
In Israel, Jacobo Timerman, who took Israeli citizenship, proved to be a nettlesome resident of his new country. In dismay over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he published “The Longest War,” an incensed attack on Israel’s conduct and policies in the conflict. Still, when Argentina offered to restore his citizenship after the fall of the country’s military dictatorship in 1981, he agreed to accept it only if he could also retain his Israeli citizenship. His son, Daniel — Hector’s brother — remained in Israel, where he continues to live today.
As Argentina’s foreign minister, Hector Timerman was faced with the longstanding refusal of Iranian officials to offer his country access to key figures in its investigation of the Jewish community center bombing.
His response, in 2013, was to sign a controversial agreement with his Iranian counterpart. The two countries agreed to form a “truth commission” to look into the bombing together, under which Iran would cooperate with the probe. The agreement was derided by critics in the Jewish community and elsewhere as a license for the suspected perpetrators to join a probe of themselves.
But in his complaint, Nisman alleged something more: that the agreement, signed in Ethiopia, was nothing more than a public show to veil other secret negotiations, which he accused Timerman of initiating two years earlier at a meeting in Syria, to give Argentina favorable access to Iran’s oil. Timerman rejects reports of that first meeting in Syria.
The agreement has deeply split the Jewish community here, which with 230,000 people is the largest in South America, and Nisman’s complaint and death have only exacerbated those divisions.
Rabbi Sergio Bergman, an opposition congressman, has led calls for Timerman to face a Jewish ethical tribunal composed of prominent figures in the community. Some Jewish groups have also formally asked AMIA to terminate Timerman’s membership in the group.
Timerman has said his critics should not intertwine faith and his obligations as foreign minister. He characterizes accusations that he is a traitor to Judaism as hurtful.
Some of the victims’ families do not believe Timerman’s declared commitment to justice in the bombing case. “The pact was reached for a different reason,” said Luis Czyzewski, 70, whose 21-year-old daughter died in the bomb attack, hinting at an impunity deal for Iran. Czyzewski said Timerman should, in fact, have considered his faith. “If the government asked me as a minister to sign something that clashed with my Jewish ethics, I’d resign,” he said.
But some scholars and members of the Jewish community have defended Timerman. AMIA and other Jewish organizations, they say, have never genuinely sought justice for the victims of the bomb attack during an investigation marred by setbacks, and a corruption scandal involving a former president and a prominent Jewish leader. They have also cast suspicion on Nisman’s focus on Iran, claiming that other lines of investigation were discouraged by foreign influences.
“I have absolutely no doubt about the good intentions of Hector Timerman,” said Sergio Burstein, 64, referring to Timerman’s moves to advance the investigation through the agreement with Iran. Burstein’s ex-wife died in the bomb attack. “We want the real truth,” Burstein said. “The case is more alive than ever.”
Horacio Verbitsky, another prominent Argentine Jew and renowned investigative journalist, has cast strong doubts on the allegations of a secret deal advanced by Nisman. Verbitsky, who is now president of the country’s leading human rights group, the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, pointed out to The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer that only two pages of Nisman’s nearly 300-page report concern the legal basis of the criminal charges against the president.
Still, many people here feel differently. They say Nisman’s knowledge of the case is irreplaceable.
“With each year, justice has got further away,” said 73-year-old Sofia Guterman, whose 28-year-old daughter died in the attack. “Now we find ourselves without a prosecutor.” Guterman pointed to a history of “lies, tricks and ruses” that have enveloped the case. “I have wanted justice from my soul, she said. “But our friends,” she added, “have too often turned out to be our enemies.”
With Larry Cohler-Esses
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Hector Timerman: Human Rights Icon or Dirty Dealmaker?