Explained: Corruption trial against Argentina’s ex-president as she seeks to return to powerhttps://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-corruption-trial-against-argentinas-ex-president-as-she-seeks-to-return-to-power-5747824/

Explained: Corruption trial against Argentina’s ex-president as she seeks to return to power

Here's a look at the trial against Argentina's former president Cristina Fernandez and its possible impact on this year's presidential election.

Explained: Corruption trial against Argentina's ex-president as she seeks to return to power
Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner looks on in a court room before the start of a corruption trial, in Buenos Aires, Argentina May 21, 2019. (Reuters Photo: Agustin Marcarian)

Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and her current presidential running mate Alberto Fernandez launch their campaign Saturday with a political rally on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Cristina Fernandez recently surprised many when she announced that she will run for vice president instead of the presidency.

The campaign kickoff comes soon after she appeared in court for the first in a string of trials charging her with corruption. Here’s a look at the trial and its possible impact on this year’s presidential election.

What are the charges against Argentina’s ex-president?

In the initial trial, which is expected to last about a year, Fernandez faces charges of heading a criminal association that defrauded the state by illegally granting public works projects in the southern province on Santa Cruz during her 2007-2015 presidency.

Prosecutors allege about 50 of those infrastructure contracts benefited Lazaro Baez, a businessman who was close to her and her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner. Prosecutors also say that a disproportionate amount of projects were allocated to the province through Baez and that several projects were overpriced and many were unfinished.

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The center-left Fernandez denies any wrongdoing and has called the trial a political “smoke screen.” She accuses the administration of her successor, conservative Mauricio Macri, of persecuting her in hopes of distracting from Argentina’s current economic troubles and of undermining her popularity.

Can she be jailed?

Other former Argentine presidents have faced trials, but Fernandez is the only one to do so while having a clear shot of returning to power.

If found guilty, she could face up to 15 years in prison.

But it’s not that easy: Fernandez is currently a senator, which grants her immunity from arrest. That immunity could be lifted only by an unlikely vote of two-thirds of Argentina’s senators. If she should be elected vice president, that post also has immunity from arrest.

So, even with a conviction, she likely would be either back in Congress or perhaps in the vice president’s office.

Who is on trial?

The populist Fernandez is among 13 accused in the current trial. Others include her former planning minister, Julio de Vido; her former public works minister, Jose Lopez; and several others who served during her administration as well as her late husband’s presidency.

Hearings will continue in the coming weeks, but Fernandez will only be expected to return to court to be questioned and then at end of the trial when she will have a chance to say some final words before the verdict.

More than 120 witnesses will be called to testify. They include her former Cabinet chief, Alberto Fernandez, who is now at the top of her party’s presidential ticket.

How popular is she? 

Human rights leaders, left-wing politicians and unionists showed their support for Fernandez at the courtroom Tuesday. Outside, a crowd of sympathizers chanted her name and waved Argentina’s national flag.

“Her public support has remained steady for years, even as mountains of evidence of misconduct have come to light,” said Benjamin Gedan, an Argentina expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Gedan said, however, that images of the former president in court will definitely not help her attract undecided voters during the October election.

What do her critics say?

Detractors blame Fernandez for endemic corruption and the deterioration of Argentina’s economy.

But many Argentines are also suspicious of the courts in a country where scandals often grab headlines before they get lost in slow-moving and often unresolved investigations.

Gedan pointed out that in the latest Pew Research Center survey, “only 18% of respondents in Argentina said they trust the courts.”

What other cases await?

Fernandez faces numerous formal investigations into allegations of money laundering and criminal association.

And, along with other former officials, she also faces trial on charges that she covered up the role of Iranians alleged to be tied to a 1994 terrorist bombing at a Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 people.

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The prosecutor who first recommended charges against her in that case, Alberto Nisman, died mysteriously of a gunshot wound days later in a case that is still under investigation.