BUENOS AIRES – A federal court on Tuesday found Vice President Cristina Kirchner guilty of fraud and sentenced her to six years in prison for embezzling funds through public works contracts, a blow to a left-wing government grappling with rising inflation and one of the worst economic crises has in two decades.
A three-judge panel said Ms Kirchner, along with several other former assistants, would be permanently barred from holding public office, capping a long-running bribery case against Argentina’s most prominent and divisive politicians. Ms. Kirchner served two terms as president, from 2007 to 2015, before becoming the country’s first female vice president to be indicted and convicted of bribery during her tenure.
Ms Kirchner, a driving force in the populist Kirchnerismo movement for two decades, denied the allegations and said she was a victim of political persecution. She is expected to appeal the verdict, a process that Argentine legal experts say could drag on for years and hamper prosecutors’ efforts to ban her from office.
She may also never serve jail time, as she enjoys immunity from prosecution and is widely expected to run for Senate or the presidency in the late 2023 election. In addition, Argentine law prohibits imprisonment for anyone over the age of 70. Ms. Kirchner will be 70 years old in February.
“This conviction, my compatriots, is not constitutional,” Ms. Kirchner said in a video speech shortly after the court’s decision. “It’s a parallel state, a judicial mafia.”
Although Ms. Kirchner had left open another possible run for president in the past, she said Tuesday after the sentence, “I will not run.”
“I’m not going to run for anything, not president, not senator,” said Ms. Kirchner, who has also been a senator since 2019 and is considered the most dominant leader of her left-wing political movement. “My name will not be on any ballot.”
The court also found eight other people guilty of state fraud and sentenced them to three to six years in prison, while four others were acquitted. The focus of the case was the award of public contracts to a building contractor Lázaro Báez, who was close to the Kirchner family.
An influential figure in President Alberto Fernández’s political coalition, Ms Kirchner’s legal woes are likely to weigh on an unpopular government facing what economists have described as a difficult economic environment.
Mr Fernández and his economy minister Sergio Massa agreed earlier this year on austerity measures and cuts in energy subsidies as part of a deal with the International Monetary Fund to refinance $44 billion of debt to avoid a default. Ms Kirchner has defied efforts to reduce the budget deficit, falling out with the president while supporting the printing of pesos to fund lavish social programs.
According to a study by the Catholic University of Argentina, Argentina’s poverty rate has risen from 28% in 2017 to 43% this year. Annual inflation hit 88% in October, the state statistics agency said, peaking in the Group of 20 and the fastest pace of consumer price increases since Argentina faced hyperinflation in the early 1990s. And economists expect inflation to hit 100% by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the peso has weakened sharply against the dollar this year, raising concerns about a painful depreciation amid low central bank reserves.
Ms Kirchner and her supporters say the probe sparked hostility against her, leading to an alleged failed assassination attempt in September after prosecutors brought charges against her.
In one mysterious incident, a man pointed a gun in Ms Kirchner’s face as she greeted her supporters outside her home and pulled the trigger. The gun did not fire and the vice president was unharmed. A Brazilian living in Argentina was arrested immediately after the attack. Authorities have not disclosed a motive.
The criminal case against Ms. Kirchner stems from her time as president, when the government awarded highway construction contracts to construction magnate Mr. Báez in the southeastern province of Santa Cruz, a stronghold of Kirchnerism.
Argentine antigraft prosecutors had sought 12 years in prison and a ban from public office for alleging Ms Kirchner used her position to conspire with aides and Mr Báez to obtain kickbacks for fraudulent contracts for projects, some of which never happened have been completed. The alleged conspiracy cost the government nearly $1 billion, prosecutors said.
While the court found Ms. Kirchner guilty of state fraud, it did not find her guilty of leading a criminal conspiracy.
Mr Báez, who is already serving a 12-year sentence for money laundering, has in the past denied the allegations and paraded schools and other projects which he said showed the contracts he was given were legitimate.
Ms Kirchner’s conviction is likely to further erode support for Mr Fernández’s government, which has an approval rating of about 18%, according to Mariel Fornoni, director of Management and Fit, an Argentine policy consultancy. In opinion polls, corruption is second only to inflation as the main concern of citizens, Ms Fornoni said.
In recent months, Ms. Kirchner has criticized some of the Fernández administration’s efforts to reduce subsidies to gas and other utilities. Her comments, Ms Fornoni said, have fueled speculation that she would seek public office in next year’s election, when Mr Fernández’s term ends.
Ms. Kirchner “experiences a high level of rejection in polls,” Ms. Fornoni said. But she said the vice president also had a strong support base that hovered at 25 percent, making her the leading figure in the ruling Peronist party until her announcement on Tuesday.
“It will be difficult to find someone who can inspire confidence in Argentina,” Ms Fornoni said.
Ms. Kirchner and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, president from 2003 to 2007, presided over the country during a spate of left-leaning governments across Latin America that used revenues from high commodity prices to boost public spending and forge alliances to oppose the US influence in the region.
As leftist governments reemerged in countries in the region, Ms Kirchner had a new set of allies, some of whom had criticized the investigation in Argentina.
In August, the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia, along with Argentina, signed a joint statement calling for the political persecution case against Ms. Kirchner. “They are trying to bury the ideals and values that it represents, with the ultimate goal of implanting a neoliberal model,” the statement said.
In her statement following Tuesday’s verdict, Ms Kirchner described the conviction as a verdict against the populist system she had promoted in Argentina. “They condemn me because they condemn a model of economic development and the recognition of people’s rights,” she said.
Write to Kejal Vyas at [email protected]
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