By ALMUDENA CALATRAVA, Associated Press
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was convicted and sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison and a lifetime ban from holding public office for a fraud scheme that embezzled $1 billion through public works projects during her presidency.
A three-judge panel found the Peronist leader guilty of fraud but rejected a charge of running a criminal organization, for which the sentence could have been 12 years in prison. It was the first time an Argentine vice president has been convicted of a crime while in office.
Fernández lashed out at the verdict, describing herself as the victim of a “judicial mafia.” But she also later announced that she would not run next year for the presidency, a post she previously held from 2007 to 2015.
The sentence isn’t firm until appeals are decided, a process that could take years. She remains immune from arrest meanwhile.
Fernández’s supporters vowed to paralyze the country with a nationwide strike. They clogged downtown Buenos Aires and marched on the federal court building, beating drums and shouting as they pressed against police barriers.
Fernández roundly denied all the accusations. Argentina’s dominant leader this century, she was accused of improperly granting public works contracts to a construction magnate closely tied to her family.
The verdict is certain to deepen fissures in the South American nation, where politics can be a blood sport and the 69-year-old populist leader is either loved or hated.
President Alberto Fernández, who is not related to his vice president, said on Twitter that she was innocent and that her conviction is “the result of a trial in which the minimum forms of due process were not taken care of.”
Prosecutors said Fernández fraudulently directed 51 public works projects to Lázaro Báez, a construction magnate and early ally of her and her husband Nestor Kirchner, who served as president from 2003 to 2007 and died suddenly in 2010.
Báez and members of Cristina Fernández’s administration were among a dozen others accused in the conspiracy. The panel also sentenced Báez and Fernández’s public works secretary, José López, to six years. Most of the others got lesser sentences.
Prosecutors Diego Luciani and Sergio Mola said the Báez company was created to embezzle revenues through improperly bid projects that suffered from cost overruns and in many cases were never completed. The company disappeared after the Kirchners’ 12 years in power, they said.
In Argentina, judges in such cases customarily pronounce verdicts and sentences first and explain how they reached their decision later. The panel’s full decision is expected in February. After that, the verdict can be appealed up to the Supreme Court, a process that could take years.
Fernández went on her YouTube channel to say she will not seek further office after her vice presidential term expires on December 10, 2023. “I’m not going to be a candidate for anything, not president, not for senator. My name is not going to be on any ballot. I finish on December 10 and go home,” she said.
Politicians and analysts had noted that until her appeal is settled, Fernández would be free to run for any elected office —from a seat in Congress to the presidency— and obtain immunity arrest by being elected.
“Cristina always surprises,” pollster Roberto Bacman, director of Argentina’s Center for Public Opinion Studies, said of her announcement. But “she will continue fighting,” he added. “She places herself in the center of the fight and says that she is not going to hide.”
He said it remains to be seen if the Peronist sector seeks to push Fernández to reconsider her decision.
Patricio Giusto, director of the consulting firm Diagnóstico Político, predicted Fernández will deepen her “strategy of victimization and equating herself” with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leftist politician who has just been elected president of Brazil after a court overturned his prison sentence for corruption.
During the judicial process, the vice president called herself a victim of “lawfare” and characterized the judiciary as a pawn of the opposition media and conservative politician Mauricio Macri, who succeeded her as president in 2015.
Fernández remains the singular leader of the leftist faction of the Peronist movement. Bacman said his surveys show 62 percent of Argentines want her removed and 38 percent support her no matter what.
Meanwhile, other cases remain pending against her, including a charge of money laundering that also involves her son and daughter.