BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández 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 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 will remains immune from arrest meanwhile.
Speaking after the verdict, she described herself as the victim of a “judicial mafia.”
Her supporters vowed to paralyze the country with a nationwide strike. They clogged downtown Buenos Aires and marched on the federal court building, beating drums and shouting as they pressed against police barriers.
Fernández 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.
Prosecutors said Fernández fraudulently directed 51 public works projects to Lázaro Báez, 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.
Báez and members of her 2007-2015 presidential administration were among a dozen others accused in the conspiracy. The panel sentenced Báez 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 Báez 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.
Pollster Roberto Bacman, who directs Argentina's Center for Public Opinion Studies and supported the campaign of current President Alberto Fernández, said the opposition parties have been hoping to campaign calling her a convict, as well as a thief and a whore.
And Cristina Fernández, who last month compared her judges to a “firing squad," is ready to play the victim, characterizing the judiciary as a pawn of right-wing forces including opposition media and Mauricio Macri, who succeeded her as president, Bacman said.
“So we already know how she'll be attacked and also how Kirchnerism will defend her, which is to consider her a victim of “lawfare,” just like Lula (President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) faced in Brazil or what the former president of Ecuador (Rafael Correa) currently faces," Bacman said.
Either way, she remains the singular leader of the leftist faction of the Peronist movement. Bacman said his surveys show 62% want her removed and 38% 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.