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Argentina’s vice president Cristina Fernandez found guilty of fraud

Cristina Fernandez (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
Cristina Fernandez (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Argentina’s vice president Cristina Fernandez was convicted and sentenced on Tuesday to six years in prison and a lifetime ban from holding public office for a fraud scheme that embezzled one billion US dollars 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 organisation, for which the sentence could have been 12 years in prison.

It is the first time an Argentine vice president has been convicted of a crime while in office.

The sentence is not firm until appeals are decided, a process that could take years. She will remain immune from arrest meanwhile.

Speaking after the verdict, she described herself as the victim of a “judicial mafia”.

Argentina Cristina Fernandez Corruption
Supporters of Cristina Fernandez gather outside the court in Buenos Aires (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

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

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.

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 2003-2007 and died suddenly in 2010.

Baez and members of Fernandez’s 2007-2015 presidential administration were among a dozen others accused in the conspiracy. The panel sentenced Baez and the former president’s public works secretary, Jose Lopez, 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.

In Argentina, judges in such cases customarily pronounce verdicts and sentences first and explain how they reached their decision later. The panel’s full decision is expected in February. After that, the verdict can be appealed up to the Supreme Court, a process that could take years.