Prosecutor of Top Paraguayan Politicos to Appeal His Dismissal
These are strange days for Alejandro Nissen, the prosecutor who almost single-handedly brought down President Luis Gonzalez Macchi last year by linking him to a stolen BMW.
Nissen and a small cadre of low-level prosecutors have been waging a lonely war against corruption in this country, where official bribery, extortion and embezzlement from the public coffers have become something of a national sport.
A judicial panel that oversees prosecutors ordered Nissen fired April 9. But opposition politicians and others say the removal is politically motivated: Just hours earlier, Nissen had charged the chair of the panel with possession of a stolen Mercedes-Benz.
On Tuesday, Nissen will argue before the Supreme Court -- not as a prosecutor in a corruption case but, rather, in his own appeal against the judicial panel’s action.
“Awhile back we realized that it’s difficult to fight against corruption, impunity, the mafia and cronyism,” Nissen, 39, said in an interview in his home in Asuncion, the capital. “For the moment, maybe the struggle is futile.”
Last week, Nissen expected to be locked out of his office; the judicial panel that had ordered him fired said he was ineffective and guilty of “grandstanding.” But Nissen ignored the order and came to work anyway.
It turned out that the doors were not locked. So he kept on working. The next day, a major breakthrough came in one of his biggest cases, against the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Oscar Gonzalez Daher, who is also chair of the judicial panel that had ordered him fired.
Nissen had traced the car to Argentina, where an owner stepped forward to claim it. Paraguay is infamous as the destination of cars stolen from Brazil, Chile and Argentina.
Judge Pedro Dario Portillo requested impeachment proceedings against Gonzalez Daher, saying the allegations Nissen had brought against him -- possessing a stolen Mercedes and submitting fraudulent registration documents -- were serious enough to strip him of his immunity as a legislator.
Less than 24 hours after Portillo’s request, Gonzalez Daher managed to escape any potential prosecution. He had demanded and received an immediate vote on his impeachment from his fellow congressmen, most of whom are, like him, members of the ruling Colorado Party.
In a theatrical speech on the floor of Congress, Gonzalez Daher had pleaded to be impeached. He said he wanted to “defend myself before the system of justice.” Instead, his colleagues voted 48-10 against impeachment; one of the votes for impeachment had come from Gonzalez Daher.
Last year, similar impeachment proceedings were brought against Gonzalez Macchi in the case of the stolen BMW -- he eventually returned the vehicle to its Brazilian owners -- and in much more serious allegations that he had aided in embezzling $16 million in government funds.
Gonzalez Macchi avoided impeachment by a six-vote margin in February.
The dismissal of Nissen -- who works on a shoestring budget, using his own phone for official calls since his office phone doesn’t allow outgoing calls -- came as he investigates corruption allegations against several Supreme Court justices.
“In Paraguay, corruption is systemic,” said Jose Molinas, a University of Massachusetts-trained economist and advisor to a national anticorruption commission. The effort to remove one of the country’s most prominent prosecutors only increases skepticism about reform, he said.
“It’s very difficult to explain to people how you can fire a prosecutor who is bringing charges against a man who is the head of the Chamber of Deputies, a candidate for senator and the chair of the judicial review panel,” Molinas said. “The message is that impunity is a registered trademark” of Paraguayan government.
Nissen said he learned of the attempt to remove him from office in October, when a source at the attorney general’s office provided him with a draft order of his dismissal. Nissen took the document to a notary and registered it with a sworn deposition.
Later, when the judicial panel ordered him removed, its statement reproduced word for word the draft from the attorney general, even though the panel is supposed to be an independent entity.
Atty. Gen. Oscar Latorre later told reporters that he had backed Nissen’s removal.
“It’s clear this action is politically motivated,” said Victor Gulino, an attorney representing Nissen before the Supreme Court.
“Dr. Nissen’s work was bothering a lot of people.”
Times staff writer Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and special correspondent Lugo from Asuncion.