Argentine VP Cristina Fernandez gets 6 years in prison, lifetime ban from public office for fraud

Argentine Vice-President Cristina Fernandez 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 US through public works projects during her presidency.

Her supporters vow to paralyze the country with a countrywide strike

Argentine Vice-President Cristina Fernandez, shown at the opening of Congress in Buenos Aires in March, has been found guilty of corruption in a case related to public works in a highly charged legal case that has rattled the country. (Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/Getty Images)

Argentine Vice-President Cristina Fernandez 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 US 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's the first time an Argentine vice-president has been convicted of a crime while in office.

The sentence isn't firm until appeals are decided, a process that could take years. She remains immune from arrest meanwhile.

Fernandez lashed out at the verdict, describing herself as the victim of a "judicial Mafia." But she also announced that she would not run next year for the presidency, a post she previously held in 2007-15.

Her supporters vowed to paralyze the country with a countrywide strike. They clogged downtown Buenos Aires and marched on the federal court building, beating drums and shouting as they pressed against police barriers.

Public works contracts at issue

Fernandez 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.

Supporters of Fernandez react after hearing the verdict and sentence in Buenos Aires on Tuesday. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

President Alberto Fernandez, 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 Fernandez fraudulently directed 51 public works projects to Lazaro Baez, 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.

Baez and members of her 2007-15 presidential administration are among a dozen others accused of joining Fernandez in the conspiracy. The panel sentenced Baez and her public works secretary, José López, to six years. Most of the others got lesser sentences.

Prosecutors Diego Luciani and Sergio Mola said the Baez 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.

Says she won't run again

In Argentina, judges in such cases customarily pronounce verdicts and sentences first and explain how they reached their decision later, but given the public pressure in this case, they could offer some details before the panel's full decision is read out loud in February. After that, the verdict can be appealed up to the Supreme Court, a process that could take years.

Fernandez went on her YouTube channel to say she will not seek further office after her vice-presidential term expires on Dec. 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.

Supporters of Fernandez gather outside Congress after the verdict and sentence in Buenos Aires. (Gustavo Garello/The Associated Press)

Politicians and analysts had noted that until her appeal is settled, Fernandez would be free to run for any elected office — from a seat in Congress to the presidency — and obtain immunity from 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 centre 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 Fernandez to reconsider her decision.

Other cases remain pending

Patricio Giusto, director of the consulting firm Diagnostico Politico, predicted Fernandez will deepen her "strategy of victimization and equating herself" with Luiz Inacio 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 2015-2019.

Fernandez remains the singular leader of the leftist faction of the Peronist movement. Bacman said his surveys show 62 per cent want her removed and 38 per cent 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.