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Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner found guilty of corruption

Ino Your average Zoom call. On Dec. 6, a three-judge panel sentenced Argentina’s vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to six years in prison and banned from holding public office for life. When their meeting ended, Ms Fernandez responded via her own livestream on Twitter, denying all allegations and arguing that the judiciary was a “parallel state”. “Here’s what you want: I’m either in jail or dead,” she raged.

The judge ruled that Ms Fernández handed over public roadworks contracts to her family friend and business partner, Lázaro Báez, during her presidency from 2007 to 2015. Ms Fernandez’s former public works secretary, José López. The ruling is the first of its kind in Argentina. The current executive has never been convicted of corruption before.

The trial has been closely watched by Argentines, leading Ms Fernandez’s followers to rally in support of her in front of her home for weeks. During one such protest in early September, a man tried to assassinate Ms Fernandez, but the gun fell silent.

Ms Fernandez is expected to appeal the conviction. The case could reach the Supreme Court, which could be years away. She is free to run in next year’s presidential election. A seat in Congress would save her from arrest. But Ms. Fernandez surprised many when she announced on Dec. 6 that she would not run for any public office next year. Instead, she dared officials to arrest her.

Ms Fernandez has been investigated in more than a dozen cases, mostly for corruption, although she has been acquitted in four and fired in two others.

Ms Fernandez has been Argentina’s most influential and polarizing politician since entering politics in the 1990s. Together with her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, who was president from 2003 to 2007, she launched a left-wing movement that has the support of less than a third of voters. Her supporters have praised her for increasing welfare payments to the poor and nationalizing state-owned airlines and oil companies. Critics see her as a populist who fueled Argentina’s ruin by expropriating foreign businesses, introducing dizzying price controls and monitoring double-digit inflation.

Mr Báez, a former bank employee in the remote Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, the Kirchner family’s political stronghold, founded a construction firm days before Nestor Kirchner became president. Mr. Báez’s company won 51 public works contracts in Santa Cruz between 2003 and 2015, accounting for almost 80 percent of all public works contracts in the province during that period. Only 27 projects were completed and another 24 projects were abandoned. Prosecutors estimate that the fraudulent contracts cost the state about $1 billion.

Video from 2012 shows Mr Báez’s son counting wads of cash in his office with other apparent associates of the Kirchner family. Mr. Lopez, who served as public works minister during Kirchner’s 12-year rule, was caught on camera throwing a duffel bag containing $9 million in cash and a Rolex watch into the convent shortly after Ms. Fernandez left office in 2016. Mr. Báez and Mr. López, both convicted in unrelated cases, were also sentenced to six years in prison on December 6.

Supporters of Ms Fernandez protested outside the courtroom as the conviction was read out. Some of them compared her to Brazil’s leftist former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was jailed in 2018 on corruption charges but was arrested 19 months later. He was released after the conviction was quashed by the Supreme Court on technical grounds. He won Brazil’s presidential election in October. Supporters of Ms Fernandez hope she too will have a political future.

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