Argentina's vice-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner jailed over $1 billion fraud

Argentina's Vice-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner close to her home in Buenos Aires last August - AFP/Getty Images
Argentina's Vice-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner close to her home in Buenos Aires last August - AFP/Getty Images

Argentina's Vice-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was convicted and sentenced on 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 organisation, for which the sentence could have been 12 years in prison, the Associated Press reported. It was the first time an Argentinian vice-president has been convicted of a crime while in office.

Ms Fernandez de Kirchner lashed out at the verdict, describing herself as the victim of a "judicial mafia". But she also later announced that she would not run next year for the presidency, a post she previously held in 2007-2015.

The sentence isn't firm until appeals are decided, a process that could take years. She will remains immune from arrest meanwhile.

Ms Fernandez de Kirchner's supporters vowed to paralyse 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.

Ms Fernandez de Kirchner 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,  the AP reported.

President Alberto Fernandez, who is not related to his vice-president, said on Twitter that she was innocent and that her conviction is "the result of a trial in which the minimum forms of due process were not taken care of".

Prosecutors said Ms Fernandez de Kirchner fraudulently directed 51 public works projects to Lazaro Baez, a construction magnate and early ally of her and her husband Nestor Kirchner, who served as president in 2003-2007 and died suddenly in 2010.

Mr Baez and members of Ms Fernandez de Kirchner's 2007-2015 presidential administration were among a dozen others accused in the conspiracy. The panel also sentenced Baez and her public works secretary, Jose Lopez, to six years. Most of the others got lesser sentences.

Prosecutors Diego Luciani and Sergio Mola said the Baez 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.

Ms Fernandez de Kirchner went on her YouTube channel to say she will not seek further office after her vice presidential term expires on December 10, 2023. "I'm not going to be a candidate for anything, not president, not for senator. My name is not going to be on any ballot. I finish on December 10 and go home," she said.