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Television

A Netflix series ignited a firestorm in Argentina. Its top two politicians are involved

Alberto Nisman in 2013. The Argentine prosecutor’s grisly 2015 death is the subject of the Netflix docuseries “Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy.”
Alberto Nisman in 2013. The Argentine prosecutor’s grisly 2015 death is the subject of the Netflix docuseries “Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy.”
(Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press)

It’s not every day that a Netflix series elicits public comment from presidents. But in Argentina, the true-crime docuseries “Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy” has done just that. From two presidents.

Released on Jan. 1, “Nisman” has caused a furor in Argentina, where it revived questions about the 2015 death in Buenos Aires of well-known prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was seen as something of a living Latin American Atticus Finch.

On Jan. 18, 2015, four days after accusing then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of covering up the worst act of terrorism in Argentine history — the 1994 bombing of Jewish community center AMIA, a crime the prosecutor investigated for 10 years — Nisman, 51, was found dead in his bathroom, a single bullet in his head. He had been scheduled to testify before Congress the next day.

After failing to reach him by phone, his mother, Sara Garfunkel, found him lifeless on the tile floor, blood already caking, and a Bersa .22-caliber handgun lodged beneath his shoulder, with no discernible fingerprints on it. No gunpowder residue was found on his hands. His cellphone was retrieved soon after, wiped clean.

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Nisman, who charged Iran with masterminding the AMIA attack, accused Kirchner of perverting the course of justice and of treason, by signing a memorandum that granted Iran significant influence over the final judicial decision on the bombing, which left 85 dead and hundreds wounded. The memorandum, subsequently voided by Argentina and never ratified by the Iranian parliament, or Majlis, established a joint Iranian-Argentine commission to resolve the investigation into the bombing, which, in Nisman’s view, was akin to asking the perpetrators to probe their own crime.

To this day, the senior Iranian officials accused by Nisman, who are still sought under international arrest warrants known as Interpol red notices, have not faced trial in Argentina, and remain protected by Iran.

In a 2015 video obtained by the L.A. Times, Fernández says “no one in Argentina” thinks the prosecutor killed himself and questions statements by Argentina’s then-president. (Credit: i24 News)

The controversy over “Nisman” erupted thanks to remarks made on camera by President Alberto Fernández, a one-time Kirchner chief of staff, who was inaugurated last month, with his former boss now serving as his vice president.

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Fernández was interviewed by series director Justin Webster in 2017, when he was out of office. When asked what he thought of Nisman’s death, which had shocked the nation, Fernández replied, “To this day, I doubt he committed suicide.”

The comment was a reference to a conjecture made by Kirchner amid the outrage that swelled in the first few hours after Nisman’s death became public.

At the time, Kirchner zigzagged among a range of outlandish theories, announcing that Nisman killed himself, then hypothesizing that he was murdered in order to harm her, possibly in what she described as a civil war raging among Argentina’s intelligence agencies.

On live television, she mused that the divorced Nisman may have died in a gay orgy.

By the second day she definitively switched course, assuring the nation that Nisman’s death was not a suicide — but by then the notion had taken root among her followers, where it has remained lodged ever since.

It was those followers President Fernández evidently had in mind, when, after the series premiered, he seemed to equivocate about his comments in “Nisman.”

Speaking on a popular Argentine radio station the day after “Nisman” premiered, he said that that “since 2017 no serious evidence appeared that says that Nisman was killed.”

“Observing his behavior, seeing a man elated by what he was doing, I find it hard to believe that he could end up committing suicide,” Fernández told Radio 10, mentioning that he met Nisman a few days before his death.

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“I’d like to know what happened to Nisman and if he killed himself, why?” Fernández said.

Argentina’s judiciary initially ruled Nisman’s death “dubious” before determining that he was murdered in connection to his work as a prosecutor.

Demonstrators in Buenos Aires hold a banner that reads in Spanish: “Homage to prosecutor Nisman. Silent march” during a march in tribute to deceased prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015.
Demonstrators in Buenos Aires hold a banner that reads in Spanish: “Homage to prosecutor Nisman. Silent march” during a march in tribute to deceased prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015.
(Victor R. Caivano / Associated Press)

Nonetheless, the question at the heart of the Netflix series is, “Was Alberto Nisman’s death a homicide or a suicide?”

In an interview from Barcelona, where he lives, Webster, who has previously directed true-crime documentaries for HBO and Amazon, says that throughout the four-year project, his only aim was to “examine all evidence and testimonies, dispassionately and with total independence” so as to shed light on the “tragic, complex and internationally relevant story” of Nisman’s violent death.

“I tried to be absolutely balanced in the sense that I approached all narratives, for homicide, suicide or induced suicide, with the same questioning and open-minded attitude,” he says, adding that he does not believe the series advocates for each narrative to be viewed as equally strong.

But balance, he says, was “vital — at the essence of what we were doing.”

Webster refused to divulge his own conclusions, preferring “people to draw conclusions from the work, not from a headline.”

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Damián Pachter, the reporter who broke the story of Nisman’s death and fled Argentina days after, facing a barrage of threats from the Kirchner government, rejects Webster’s stance.

“The documentary makes an effort to ‘be balanced,’” Pachter said, using air quotes, in an interview in Tel Aviv, where he now lives. “But it is a false equivalence.”

“Those who believe in the suicide hypothesis sustain that Nisman investigated the AMIA bombing and Iran for 10 years, culminating in charges against the president, and one day before revealing part of his evidence, he suddenly realized it was inadequate and shot himself in the head,” Pachter said.

Demonstrators rally at the Buenos Aires funeral of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015.
Demonstrators rally at the Buenos Aires funeral of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015.
(David Fernandez / EPA/Shutterstock)

Pachter believes Webster “underestimates the public’s intelligence.”

“Nisman investigated for 10 years, becoming one of the world’s foremost experts on Iran,” he explains. “He charged Kirchner with a cover-up when she was at the height of power and expected to easily win reelection— and one day before publicly presenting his claims, he was found in his bathroom in a puddle of blood, hours before testifying.”

Marcelo Polakoff, the rabbi of Córdoba, Argentina, who has written extensively about Nisman’s death and counseled Nisman’s young daughters, said that “the only thing achieved by uncertainty on the question of the manner of Nisman’s death is to foment doubt.”

While Nisman’s case “is being investigated as a murder,” Webster acknowledges, “it has not come to trial yet, so the case is not over.”

Asked about Pachter and Polakoff’s criticisms of “Nisman,” Netflix and co-producers Movistar+ and ZDF released a joint statement to The Times: “We stand by the vision of our creators, and this series reflects the many different points of view of a case that remains unsolved.” (A spokesperson for Netflix declined to comment on whether and how the streaming platform vets its nonfiction titles, or its ethical obligations vis-à-vis such titles.)

Nisman’s abrupt death was revealed to the world in a tweet posted by Pachter, then a reporter with the Buenos Aires Herald: “Prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found in the bathroom of his Puerto Madero home in a pool of blood. He wasn’t breathing. The doctors are there.”

Officials in Kirchner’s government, or entourage, accused Pachter of crimes as various as having murdered Nisman himself and of operating as a Mossad agent or “Zionist soldier” in Argentina.

A week after Nisman was found dead, the Argentine government’s official Twitter feed posted confidential data and the image of a ticket for a flight Pachter purchased to Montevideo, Uruguay, captioning it “the journalist Damián Pachter flew to Uruguay with a return flight for February 2.”

Frightened, and shadowed by men he was told were Argentine intelligence agents, Pachter changed plans, buying a ticket to Israel, where he had spent part of his adolescence.

On Twitter, the government of Argentina posted “the journalist who left the country because he was ‘afraid’ takes refuge in Israel #AMIA #Nisman #Pachter.”

In video obtained by the L.A. Times, Fernández discusses Damian Pachter, who fled Argentina after reporting on the suspicious death of Alberto Nisman. (Credit: i24 News)

Pachter, 35, claims the government’s pursuit of him “exposes that the government was involved in what happened to Nisman. It can’t be a coincidence that the reporter who broke the story is followed by intelligence agents and then has his flight information published.”

As such, Pachter says he finds it telling that Webster omitted him from the narrative entirely.

Webster says he “can’t quite see the importance of who first broke the story,” but admits that “in the context of the fears around the Nisman case,” he understands others may differ.

One man who harbored no doubt about the risk to Pachter’s life is Alberto Fernández, who said in a 2015 interview, “I understand Damián’s fear.”

“He became a trigger,” Fernández told Carlos Gurevich of Israel’s i24News.

“He announced that something had happened in Nisman’s home … a tremendous allegation,” Fernández said. If Nisman’s assassination “occurred as a result of a war among intelligence agencies,” he added, referring Kirchner’s assertion in the aftermath of Nisman’s death, “why not think that Damián could be a victim of the same thing?”

In the same interview, Fernández unequivocally dismissed any possibility that Nisman took his own life. “No one in Argentina thinks it was suicide. No one. Absolutely no one, least of all Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.” (The two presidents are not related.)

The storm reignited by “Nisman” mirrors Argentina’s political fault lines.

Former Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, now vice president, has come out in support of Netflix’s new docuseries about the death of Alberto Nisman.
Former Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, now vice president, has come out in support of Netflix’s new docuseries about the death of Alberto Nisman.
(Victor R. Caivano / Associated Press)

Página 12, a tabloid that has championed the presumption of Nisman’s suicide from the start, tweeted that “the judiciary should watch the Netflix series.

On Monday, former President Kirchner publicly applauded the series in a long, personal post celebrating Netflix as having succeeding where Argentine justice failed.

She wrote that Webster presented “facts with objectivity, without omissions of testimonies and circumstances, without inventing facts that did not exist,” whereas Argentine justice — from which, in her new role as vice president, she is attempting to gain legal immunity — “produced fictions, directed and scripted in detail by foreign and domestic intelligence services, and disseminated by the hegemonic media.”

On the other side, Infobae, an outlet that maintains Nisman was murdered, consistent with forensic findings, headlined a lengthy January article “What Netflix doesn’t show you.” On Jan. 18, the anniversary of Nisman’s death, Infobae published a grisly story containing “pictures from the gendarmerie investigation that confirm Alberto Nisman was murdered.”

“I knew it would cause a big reaction,” Webster says. “I’m pleased by the way it is being taken, as a totally independent and non-political effort to get to the truth. I don’t think the series itself is what the controversy has been about.”


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