Argentina is facing a new political crisis following the conviction after a corruption trial of vice-president Cristina Kirchner, the most powerful figure in the ruling populist Peronist movement.
In a historic ruling Kirchner, who was president between 2007 and 2015, became the first major political leader in the country’s history to be found guilty of wrongdoing while in office. A panel of three judges sentenced her on Tuesday to six years in prison and a lifetime ban on holding public office for her part in a scheme to defraud $1 billion from public works contracts.
Kirchner, a polarising figure who is idolised on the left, rejected the conviction saying it was the result of a campaign of “lawfare” being waged against her by “the judiciary party and the mafia of the parallel state”. She called on supporters to mobilise in protest at the sentence during an hour long address on social media. She also said she would not run for office in next year’s elections in which she had been expected to seek the presidential nomination of her Peronist party.
Leading figures in the party quickly rallied to her support, including President Alberto Fernández. He was criticised for seizing on conversations between businessmen and judges that were leaked by a hacker as evidence to support Kirchner’s claim she was the victim of lawfare – the use of legal systems to damage or discredit an opponent. The hacking has sparked speculation that intelligence services under his command are illegally tapping private individuals. The participants say the conversations, which have been endlessly played and debated on government controlled media and in the pro-Kirchner press, have been edited to incriminate them.
Kirchner’s conviction comes as the government is trying to tackle inflation, which is heading towards 100 per cent this year and is driving poverty levels towards 50 per cent of the population. Despite being found guilty, Kirchner is unlikely to serve any jail time. As vice-president and head of the Senate she currently enjoys political immunity. Two-thirds of both houses of congress would have to vote to lift this before she could be arrested, almost impossible given their current composition.
She can also appeal against the sentence to higher courts, a process that could take years. Even if all appeals are dismissed and she loses immunity she will be eligible for home detention once she turns 70 in February.
She was found guilty in a case relating to Lázaro Báez, an obscure businessman who became fantastically wealthy after becoming close to Cristina’s husband, Nestor Kirchner, who served as president from 2003 to 2007 before his sudden death in 2010. Prosecutors said Báez was in reality a frontman for the Kirchner family. His company exercised a near monopoly on public works contracts in Patagonia, the Kirchner family’s political base, and habitually over-invoiced for projects, even those that were never completed. His company quickly closed once Cristina left office in 2015, bringing over 12 years of Kirchner rule to an end. In jail serving a previous sentence, Báez was also sentenced on Tuesday to six years for his role in the scheme.
There are two other corruption cases also proceeding against Kirchner and her two children in which they are charged with laundering the proceeds of corruption through the family’s hotel and property empire.
Kirchner and dozens of former officials and business people also face investigation in the so-called “notebook scandal”, named after notebooks were discovered containing details of a bribery and kickback scheme operating inside the government when Kirchner was president.