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Argentine ex-president's corruption trial gets under way

ARGENTINA CORRUPTION | 21 de mayo de 2019

Buenos Aires, May 21 (efe-epa).- Argentine ex-President Cristina Fernandez faces charges of diverting public funds and accepting kickbacks in a trial that got under way Tuesday in a Buenos Aires courthouse.

Fernandez, who is now a senator, is accused of leading a criminal conspiracy during her 2007-2015 presidency and fraudulently steering 52 road-construction contracts valued at 46 billion pesos (around $1 billion) in the southern province of Santa Cruz to the Austral group owned by businessman and family friend Lazaro Baez, who has been jailed on money-laundering charges since 2016.

Fernandez's late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, was from Santa Cruz and served as governor there for more than a decade before ascending to his nation's highest office.

The charges state that "defined and strategic roles" existed inside and outside the government structure over a period of more than 12 years with the aim of illegally and deliberately appropriating millions of dollars in public funds.

Among the alleged "organizers" of the conspiracy were former federal Planning Minister Julio de Vido; ex-Public Works Secretary Jose Lopez - who was caught red-handed while trying to hide nearly $9 million in a convent but was not in court Tuesday because he is cooperating with authorities in a separate case -; and the ex-deputy secretary of public works coordination, Carlos Santiago Kirchner (one of whose cousins was Nestor Kirchner).

A portion of the money paid to Baez via government contracts allegedly made its way back to Kirchner and Fernandez in the form of kickbacks.

Those alleged maneuvers, in which Baez purportedly repaid the Kirchners by renting their properties, is under investigation in other cases.

A total of 160 witnesses are expected to testify in the trial, which has taken on special importance after Fernandez said three days ago she would be a candidate for vice president in general elections scheduled for October.

She announced on Saturday that she will be the running mate of Alberto Fernandez, who was Kirchner's Cabinet chief and also held that same position for a few months under Cristina Fernandez (the two are not related) until stepping down after a major legislative defeat.

Fernandez, who sat alongside her attorney, Carlos Beraldi, in court on Tuesday and occasionally laughed and looked at her cellphone, had slammed the trial on Twitter hours earlier.

The ex-president, who faces a series of corruption trials but vehemently denies any wrongdoing, tweeted that the legal proceedings were a "new act of persecution" and a "smokescreen" aimed at distracting people from the country's economic crisis.

In announcing her bid for the vice presidency in a video on her Twitter account Saturday, Fernandez said the country was in some ways worse off now than when Kirchner took office in 2003, when the country was still suffering the after-effects of a years-long economic depression and a massive, late 2001 debt default.

"These (times) that Argentines are experiencing now are really dramatic. Never before have so many been sleeping on the street, never so many with problems finding food and work, never so many desperate people crying over unpayable bills," she said.

"And if we look at the State. My God! The foreign dollar-denominated debt that's been contracted in just three years is more than the 'defaulted' (debt) that Nestor received, although with an additional aggravating factor. Almost 40 percent is with the International Monetary Fund," Fernandez lamented.

Argentina's incumbent president, conservative Mauricio Macri, narrowly defeated Fernandez's hand-picked successor, Justicialist Party candidate Daniel Scioli, in a runoff in late 2015 in which a high annual inflation rate of around 30 percent was already an issue.

That rate has since climbed to around 50 percent, while a sharp depreciation in the peso relative to the dollar forced Macri to seek a massive IMF bailout package for the recession-hit country last year.

rgm/mc

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