Argentine government calls former spy chief to testify
Peter Prengaman (The Philippine Star) - February 6, 2015 - 7:00am

BUENOS AIRES — The spy novel-like drama that has gripped Argentina since the mysterious death of President Cristina Fernandez's nemesis took a critical new twist Thursday when investigators called one of the country's most enigmatic spy chiefs to testify before them.

The testimony by Antonio Stiuso could be key to determining whether Fernandez is able to survive the storm in the waning months of her presidency, or whether the deepening scandal will swamp her administration.

Stiuso, a shadowy intelligence agent known by the name "Jaime," had assisted prosecutor Alberto Nisman in his investigation into the unsolved bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center in 1994. A report Nisman submitted to a federal judge in January accused Fernandez of agreeing to shield the masterminds of the attack, former Iranian officials, in exchange for oil and other trade benefits.

But Nisman was found dead on Jan. 18, hours before he was to appear in Congress to detail his allegations. Without naming Stiuso specifically, Fernandez has suggested rogue intelligence agents played a role in the death and, last week, she urged Congress to disband the agency.

"The government is trying to regain control of the narrative and this is part of it," said Maria Victoria Murillo, an expert in Latin American politics at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. "The whole thing is like a spy novel and he's a spy, so it makes sense for the government to put him at the center of the story."

Fernandez, who on Thursday wrapped up an official visit in China, has come under increasing heat since Nisman's death, with conspiracy theories flourishing around the case. Although the prosecutor was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in the bathroom of his apartment, even she has rejected the initial finding that he committed suicide.

Nisman had feared for his safety and 10 federal police were assigned to protect him. The officers were suspended as part of the investigation but none have been named as suspects and no arrests have been made in the case.

The spy chief, who according to press reports oversaw a vast wire-tapping operation, had collaborated with Nisman in his 10-year investigation. Stiuso was removed from his post by Fernandez in December.

The president has suggested Stiuso fed false information to Nisman that implicated her and her top officials in a cover-up of the bombing, which killed 85 people. Fernandez has denied any wrongdoing.

Viviana Fein, the lead investigator into Nisman's death, called Thursday for Stiuso to appear to testify, said Oscar Parrilli, the secretary of intelligence.

Officials, however, have yet to locate Stiuso. His lawyer, Santiago Blanco Bermudez, told Radio Vorterix on Thursday that Stiuso had yet to receive a summons, but would appear when he is formally called.

"It's his obligation as a citizen and former public official," Blanco Bermudez said.

By law, intelligence officials are prohibited from disclosing state secrets. But, Parrilli said, Fernandez would present an order exempting Stiuso from the restriction, clearing the way for him to speak about anything.

"The president wants all the truth to be known, and wants Stiuso to tell us everything, from (when he joined the agency in) 1972 until now," Parrilli told reporters outside Congress.

While focusing attention on Stiuso could help her change the subject, any potential testimony by him could also be devastating.

Beyond any revelations related to Nisman's death, Stiuso would inevitably return the spotlight to Fernandez's alleged cover up.

The case Nisman built against Fernandez and her administration was assigned Wednesday to federal judge Daniel Rafecas, who was expected to review the case later this month. Rafecas was appointed to the bench by President Nestor Kirchner, Fernandez's late husband.

"The case doesn't need to be strong," said Martin Bohmer, a legal expert and former dean of the law school at the University of San Andres. "It just needs to be strong enough to start an investigation, and can become stronger from there."


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