Argentina’s vice-president and former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has been sentenced to six years in prison and given a lifelong ban on holding public office after being found guilty in a $1bn fraud case related to public works.
Fernández de Kirchner – who was president of Argentina for two terms between 2007 and 2015 – was found guilty of fraud on Tuesday, though she is unlikely to serve any prison time soon as she has immunity due to her government roles and is expected to launch a lengthy appeals process that could take years.
A three-judge panel rejected a second charge of running a criminal organization, for which a guilty verdict could have taken her full sentence to 12 years in prison. The sentence marked the first time an Argentinian vice-president has been convicted of a crime while in office.
In a live stream after the verdict was announced, Fernández de Kirchner said that the charges against her were politically motivated. “It is clear that the idea was always to convict me,” she said. “This is a parallel state and mafia.”
Fernández de Kirchner – who many had expected to run for president next year – also said: “I won’t be a candidate for anything, not president, not senator. My name will not be on any ballot.”
The former president described the proceedings against her as “law-fare”, which political analysts in the region describe as a form of “political warfare” involving politicians, the judiciary and the media, usually with a view to smearing leftist leaders as corrupt.
The verdict is certain to deepen fissures in Argentina, where the 69-year-old populist dominates the political landscape and recently survived a failed assassination attempt after her assailant’s gun apparently jammed. Last month, Fernández de Kirchner compared her judges to a “firing squad”.
Fernández de Kirchner was accused of arranging for 51 public works contracts in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz to be awarded to a company belonging to Lázaro Báez, a friend and business associate of Fernández and her late husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, who ruled Argentina from 2003-2007.”
“I think this is an important judgment that shows the robbery there was in Argentina,” Patricia Bullrich, leader of the rightwing opposition party Republican Proposal (PRO) told the Guardian. “For years, [Fernández de Kirchner] has been trying to confuse corruption and robbery … with a political trial. A political trial is when someone is detained for their ideas. Here, there was concrete robbery.”
Prosecutors said the Báez company was created to embezzle revenues through false bidding processes for projects that suffered from cost overruns – and in many cases were never completed.
Fernández de Kirchner is a profoundly divisive figure in Argentinian politics. She and her husband were members of the so-called “pink tide” of leftwing presidents that ruled many Latin American countries at the start of the century, alongside figures such as Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chile’s Michele Bachelet.
The Kirchners’ supporters credit them with implementing progressive economic policies that improved life for the poor and helped steer Argentina back to prosperity following a cataclysmic economic collapse in 2001 and 2002.
But her detractors have long accused Fernández de Kirchner of corruption, and the verdict will do little to change deeply entrenched opinions, said Dr Sebastián Giorgi, an Argentinian semiotician who has studied discourse around the trial.
“Those who already thought she was corrupt will keep thinking what they think, and those who think she wasn’t, will keep thinking the same, too,” he said. He pointed out that public trust in Argentina’s judiciary is low and the public, especially young people, are more likely to form their opinions from social media.
This verdict is the first time Fernández de Kirchner has been convicted. But she has previously been charged in numerous other cases in which she was either acquitted before the case went to trial or the cases were dismissed.
These include accusations that she colluded with the Iranian government to cover up Tehran’s involvement a 1994 bomb attack, in which 85 people were killed at the AMIA Jewish cultural centre.
The most recent case against her is the “Notebooks” scandal, in which she is alleged to have awarded public works contracts in exchange for kickbacks.
At 4am one night in July 2016, Fernández de Kirchner’s former public works secretary José López was caught trying to stash bin bags containing US$8.9m in cash in a nunnery on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
In a survey conducted in November by the polling firm Zuban Córdoba y Asociados, 61.9% of respondents said that they had a negative image of Fernández de Kirchner. Her supporters have promised to paralyze the country with mass protests.
The judges will publish the reasoning behind their decision in 2023.