Argentina’s Tainted Judicial System

The mysterious death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead in his apartment the day before testifying before Congress for accusing the government of Cristina Fernández de...
Source: Rodrigo Abd /AP in Al Jazeera America

The mysterious death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead in his apartment the day before testifying before Congress for accusing the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of covering up the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, continues to send shockwaves through Argentina. The culture of protest is prominent in Argentina and more so in Buenos Aires. The protest in the capital city last week, which was called by a group of state prosecutors, was attended by tens of thousands of people. Although it was a silent march, its underlying reason was much the same as previous protests – immense discontent with the government. The protest has been described in various ways; the government has called it an attempt to destabilize the state and others have called it an electoral campaign for opposition parties eyeing the presidential election later this year. But the majority of Argentines seem to be simply fed up with their increasingly rogue government.

In a Al Jazeera America report, Carlos Rívolo, a federal prosecutor and an organizer of the march said, “We came to this decision because there was no institutional response from the president – not even words of condolence to the family, nor was there a response from the attorney general – no press conference, no day of mourning, no flags at half-staff.´´

Although there are mixed sentiments among the group of prosecutors that participated in the march, the events that have unfolded since Nisman´s mysterious death only shed more light on the corrupt practice of politics in Argentina.

Kirchner´s government is known to have had a fraught relationship with the judiciary and the Public Ministry. In 2012 Fernández named Alejandra Gils Carbó for an indefinite term as prosecutor general. Then in 2014, Fernández overhauled the judiciary system and implemented several measures, a key one being the transfer of responsibility for investigating cases to the public prosecutor´s office from judges. Fernández, whose term ends in December, is embroiled in multiple court cases. To that extent, the indefinite appointment of Gils Carbó and the overhaul of the legal system are most likely attempts to distribute power to areas of the political system in which she has loyal people who will remain beyond her presidency. Also, the fact that prosecutors have been investigating allegations of the government’s excesses and improprieties – in 2013 there were 35 open but unresolved cases of alleged corruption in the judiciary, out of which 25 current of former government officials were implicated – evidences what kind of relationship (or lack thereof) exists between the prosecutors and the government. According to Rívolo, there are certain liabilities for prosecutors who try to advance cases that implicate the government, those ranging from facing harsh public recrimination to being suspended by the government´s attorney general.

The Kirchner government has never been one to handle criticism well, and much less so when it comes from the United States. The New York Times reported that Fernández lashed out against the American government for `meddling´ in Argentina´s internal affairs, stating, “We cannot allow them to transfer their conflicts here or try to provoke infighting between Argentines.´´ In another swipe at the U.S., she claimed that “in Argentina, the law rules, while other countries have clandestine prisons and people detained without trial.´´ Clearly, the Argentine – U.S. relationship is still reeling from the hit it took in 2014 in the court battle between Judge Thomas Griesa and Argentina over the government´s refusal to pay back some bondholders after it defaulted in 2001 and again in 2014.

It remains to be seen whether the government can deftly resolve the unraveling socio-political crisis on its hands. But given Fernandez’s track record for handling criticism and allegations of corruption in the past, I do not predict this latest wave of protest dissipating soon, or quietly for that matter. By the same token, mass protests are far too common in Argentina so the probability that these protests will beget any kind of decent response from this government is virtually next to none. Meanwhile, the government could take a step in the right direction and try to properly reform the judiciary. Former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo has called for a “cleanse´´ of the judiciary. “We need to support the good (judges and prosecutors) and purge (the Judiciary) of the bad ones, ´´ he said. Finally, he emphasized the importance of “making a very serious change, a deep one, so that judges are not captured by political power or corruption.´´ Let us hope that it is not time to cry again for Argentina .

Argentina’s Tainted Judicial System
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Kayla Chen

Kayla is a researcher at a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. She received her Master’s degree in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute of International Studies. Previously, she worked for the U.S. State Department, and in the fields of international education, and public relations and communications. Fluent in Spanish and proficient in Mandarin Chinese, Kayla has also spent significant time traveling and working in Latin America, particularly Argentina. Prior to joining the main WIB team, Kayla was a regular International Affairs contributor for more than a year.
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