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Argentina judge orders arrest of ex-president Cristina Kirchner

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - 

An Argentine judge on Thursday ordered the arrest of former president Cristina Kirchner for allegedly covering up Iranian involvement in a 1994 bombing at a Buenos Aires Jewish center that left 85 people dead, according to a judicial source.

Judge Claudio Bonadio also requested that Kirchner -- who served as president from 2007-15 and is now a senator -- be stripped of her immunity.

That will require a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate.

She has previously called the case, in which she is accused of treason, an "absurdity."

"As happens regularly in Argentina, the news was first leaked to the press and Cristina has not yet been notified," an aide to the former president told AFP.

Bonadio also ordered the arrest of former foreign minister Hector Timerman and several other former officials in the Kirchner governments, including former top aide Carlos Zannini.

The ex-head of the Federal Intelligence Agency, Oscar Parrilli, was placed under house arrest and ordered not to leave the country.

Kirchner had previously rejected the accusations at a hearing in October, in which she denounced a campaign of "political persecution." She had previously clashed with Bonadio when she tried to remove him from office during her presidency.

"This is a great judicial absurdity," she said. "The aim of this judicial persecution is to intimidate opposition leaders in congress. They want a submissive congress."

The former president is accused of a cover up by signing a 2012 deal with Tehran to allow Iranian officials suspected of ordering the attack on the Jewish AMIA center to be investigated in their own country, rather than in Argentina.

Bonadio's case is that this was part of "an orchestrated criminal plan" to cover-up the alleged involvement of Iranian officials in return for lucrative trade deals with the Islamic Republic.

Nobody has been charged for the attack.

The charges have been rejected several times by courts as lacking substance, but the case was reopened in February this year.

The former head of state said in court that a memorandum of understanding with Tehran -- passed by the Argentine congress but not by Iran -- "had one aim: to allow an investigation into the Iranians accused in the AMIA attack, so that the case could move forward."

She has argued in the past that since Iran and Argentina have no extradition agreement, and Argentina does not carry out trials in absentia, there was no other way to proceed with the investigation.

The AIMA attack is the subject of a tangle of parallel cases as prosecutors are also looking into whether the country's leadership at the time had conspired to obstruct the investigation.

Among those facing trial separately are Carlos Menem, president from 1989-99, the judge who led the investigation for its first 10 years, the ex-head of the intelligence agency, two prosecutors and a representative of the Jewish community, among others.

-- Senate vote --

Kirchner, 64, who had two four-year terms in office, is due to take her seat in the Senate next week after her election victory in October crowned a political comeback and granted her immunity from imprisonment in several corruption cases.

The Senate, which is due to convene on December 10, will now have to consider a vote on lifting her immunity at the judge's request, for which a two-thirds majority is needed.

Kirchner's leftist alliance in the Senate has a total of 32 seats in the 72-seat Senate, but only around a dozen senators are in the Kirchner camp.

The center-right Cambiemos alliance of President Mauricio Macri has 25 seats in the upper house.

The case is based on charges first levelled two years ago by crusading prosecutor Alberto Nisman. He was found shot dead in his Buenos Aires apartment on January 18, 2015, four days after formally accusing Kirchner of a cover-up.

The Jewish center bombing case is the most serious before Kirchner, who is facing trial in several other cases involving corruption and money-laundering stemming from her years as president.

Several prominent members of her former government have been detained on corruption charges in recent weeks, including ex-public works minister Julio De Vido and Amado Boudou, Kirchner's vice-president from 2011-2015.

Eighty-five people were killed and 300 wounded in the AIMA bombing, which was commemorated in an October visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Argentine investigators accuse five former Iranian officials -- including former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and ex-Republican Guard head Mohsen Rezai -- of ordering Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah to carry out that bombing. Iran denies any involvement.

The attack -- which followed a 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people -- devastated Argentina's Jewish population, the largest in Latin America at about 300,000 people.

© 2017 AFP