Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s vice-president and a towering figure of Latin America’s political left, has been convicted of corruption in a case that has divided public opinion, with her supporters vowing to paralyse the country in protest.
A three-judge panel delivered the guilty verdict in Buenos Aires on Tuesday that is likely to embolden Fernández de Kirchner’s base ahead of the October 2023 presidential race, as the ruling Peronists contend with runaway inflation and a battered economy.
Prosecutors handed Fernández de Kirchner a six-year prison sentence and a lifetime ban from public office on fraud charges. She was among dozens accused of allegedly leading a criminal scheme to fraudulently divert roughly $1bn in government funds through public works contracts during her 2007-15 presidency.
As both vice-president and head of the Senate, the 69-year-old has legal protections and is unlikely to face jail time. Under Argentine law, her right to serve and run for public office remains until all avenues of appeal have been exhausted. Further proceedings could drag on for years, according to legal experts.
But the federal court ruling will reverberate through Argentina’s fraught political landscape as the leftwing government prepares to fend off a challenge from the conservative opposition in presidential elections next year. An appeals process, which is widely expected, could span years as the case make its way through the higher courts.
“It is clear that the idea was to convict me,” Fernández de Kirchner said in a defiant televised address immediately after the guilty verdict, later describing the judiciary as a “mafia”.
Fernández de Kirchner, known in Argentina as Cristina, has claimed she is a victim of political persecution by a “media judicial firing squad”, and has called on her supporters to defend her.
Before the verdict, some Fernández de Kirchner allies had mobilised in her defence. Crowds blocked several streets in downtown Buenos Aires on Tuesday, with further protests expected in the capital on Wednesday.
Polls show the fiery populist, who served as president from 2007-2015, still commands roughly 30 per cent of public support. As one of Argentina’s most recognised politicians she is widely considered one of the few viable Peronist presidential candidates in next year’s race.
Fernández de Kirchner is no stranger to scandal. She faces multiple prosecutions for corruption over events from her presidency. Of the cases brought against her in recent years, four have been dropped, while five remain.
Last year the so-called “future dollars” case, in which her government was accused of defrauding the central bank, was dismissed for lack of evidence. She has been acquitted in two other cases that have gone to trial.
When delivering her final testimony last week to the court, Fernández de Kirchner accused prosecutors of dedicating themselves “to insulting and slandering” her, lashing out at Argentina’s justice system and “lawfare”, or the use of the courts to attack political enemies.
Critics say Argentina’s judiciary has been lenient toward politicians when they are in office, while increasing scrutiny when they step down.
A separate case against her, known as “the notebook case” — involving allegations of bribes paid to public officials — is expected to go to trial, possibly as soon as next year.
The notebook scandal has been compared to Brazil’s vast Lava Jato or Car Wash corruption investigation that ultimately ensnared then-president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, because of the multiple companies and high-profile politicians that have been implicated.
Lula, a close ally of Fernández de Kirchner, was sentenced and jailed for corruption in 2018. He repeatedly protested his innocence, galvanising his leftwing supporters, and was eventually released after his convictions were annulled by the country’s top court. Lula recently won a third term as president, which will begin in January.