Kirchner corruption trial opens in Argentina

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner listened to the charges against her on Tuesday in the first hearing of a corruption trial that will unfold as the country heads towards general elections in October.

Kirchner, 66, is accused of favoring a businessman friend, Lazaro Baez, for lucrative road construction contracts in Argentina's southern Santa Cruz province. The charges date from her two terms as Argentina's president from 2007-2015.

In a message on Twitter hours before her court appearance, she dismissed the trial as a "smokescreen" intended to distract voters from the country's "dramatic" economic problems.

"It is a new act of persecution with a single objective: to place a former president opposed to this government on the defendants' bench during a full presidential campaign," she wrote.

Dressed in a navy blue skirt and jacket suit, Kirchner said nothing during the three hour hearing, in which she was surrounded by lawyers.

The hearing was dedicated entirely to the reading of the charges against her. The next hearing will take place on Monday, May 27.

Kirchner, widely tipped in opinion polls to beat incumbent Mauricio Macri in a presidential run-off, surprised supporters at the weekend by announcing she would instead seek the vice presidency.

Despite a series of corruption scandals, Kirchner has retained strong support, particularly among the poorest Argentines who are bearing the brunt of Macri's economic policies.

Unemployment and social unrest is growing amid high inflation and a weak peso.

That helped make her a favorite in polling ahead of the October 27 presidential election, with some surveys putting her ahead of Macri.

- Parliamentary immunity -

Lawmakers from her Front for Victory party joined her in court, alongside some human rights organizations, such as the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo group that campaigns for justice for those disappeared during Argentina's military dictatorship.

When she left the court, Kirchner smiled and briefly spoke to a group of supporters.

Judge Claudio Bonadio had asked that Kirchner be held in pre-trial detention, but the parliamentary immunity she enjoys as a senator spared her.

The trial in Buenos Aires' Comodoro Py courthouse is expected to take a year. Kirchner's attendance at the opening is compulsory, but she can send a representative to the subsequent weekly hearings.

Twelve other people are accused in the case, including Baez, Julio De Vido, a former minister, and a former government official Jose Lopez.

The indictment alleges that many of the works contracts awarded in Santa Cruz province were overpriced and although paid for, they were never completed.

Kirchner is accused of having favored companies owned by Baez in the attribution of 52 public works contracts worth 46 billion pesos ($1.2 billion) during both her presidency and that of her late husband Nestor Kirchner from 2003-07.

He began his political career as governor of Santa Cruz from 1991 until he became president.

The trial was due to start in February but had to be postponed after one of the judges fell ill and later died.

Kirchner's lawyers had submitted numerous appeals against the case, alleging a lack of evidence but last week the Supreme Court ruled that it would go ahead.

Prosecutors say Kirchner was linked to the case by Lopez, the former government official, who was caught red-handed in 2016 trying to hide a bag containing $9 million in cash in a convent near Buenos Aires.

It is the first in a string of 12 corruption cases Kirchner faces.

The most high-profile, and serious, of those is the so-called corruption notebooks scandal.

It revolves around meticulous records kept by a government chauffeur, Oscar Centeno, of cash bribes -- allegedly worth $160 million between 2005 and 2015 -- he is said to have delivered from businessmen to government officials.