BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández was sentenced on Tuesday to six years in prison and a life ban from public office over 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 dismissed a charge of leadership of a criminal organization, which could have been punished with 12 years in prison. It was the first time an Argentine vice president was convicted of a crime during his tenure.
Fernández attacked the verdict and described himself as a victim of a “judicial mafia”. However, she later also announced that she would not be running for the presidency next year, a post she previously held from 2007 to 2015.
The verdict is not set until appeals are decided, a process that can take years. She remains immune to arrest in the meantime.
Fernández supporters promised to paralyze the country with a nationwide strike. They clogged downtown Buenos Aires and marched toward the federal courthouse, banging drums and shouting while pushing against police cordons.
Fernández flatly denied all allegations. Argentina’s dominant leader this century, she has been accused of wrongfully awarding public works contracts to a construction magnate closely linked to her family.
The ruling is sure to deepen rifts 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 was “the result of a trial that failed to comply with the minimum forms of due process.”
Prosecutors said Fernández fraudulently directed 51 public works projects to Lázaro Báez, a construction magnate and early ally of hers and her husband Nestor Kirchner, who was president from 2003 to 2007 and died suddenly in 2010.
Báez and members of the Fernández presidential administration from 2007 to 2015 were among a dozen other suspects in the conspiracy. The panel also sentenced Báez and her Public Works Secretary, José López, to six years. Most others received lighter sentences.
Prosecutors Diego Luciani and Sergio Mola said the Báez company was formed to embezzle revenue from misbidden projects that suffered from cost overruns and in many cases were never completed. The company was said to have disappeared after 12 years in the power of the Kirchners.
In Argentina, in such cases, judges usually pronounce verdicts and judgments first and later explain how they arrived at their decision. The panel’s full decision is expected in February. After that, the verdict can be appealed to the Supreme Court, a process that can take years.
Fernández said on her YouTube channel that she will not seek another office after her term as vice president expires on December 10, 2023. “I’m not running for anything, not president, not senator. My name will not be on any ballot. I’ll finish on December 10 and go home,” she said.
Politicians and analysts have noted that Fernández could run for any elected office — from a seat in Congress to the presidency — until her appeal is settled, and gain immunity from arrest by being elected.
“Cristina always surprises,” said pollster Roberto Bacman, director of Argentina’s Center for Public Opinion Research, of her announcement. But “she will keep fighting,” he added. “She puts herself at the center of the fight and says she won’t hide.”
He said it remains to be seen whether the Peronist sector will try to pressure Fernández to reconsider their decision.
Patricio Giusto, director of consulting firm Diagnóstico Político, predicted that Fernández will deepen her “strategy of victimization and equality” with Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, the left-wing politician who was just elected president of Brazil after a court overturned his prison sentence Corruption.
During the trial, the vice president described herself as a victim of “lawfare” and described the judiciary as a plaything for the opposition media and conservative politician Mauricio Macri, who succeeded her as president from 2015 to 2019.
Fernández remains the only leader of the left faction of the Peronist movement. Bacman said his polls show 62% of Argentines want it removed and 38% support it no matter what.
Meanwhile, other cases are pending against her, including a charge of money laundering, which also involves her son and daughter.