Argentina court hands VP Cristina Kirchner 6-year jail term in graft case


FILE PHOTO: Argentina's Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner speaks onstage during a party rally inside the Diego Maradona stadium, in La Plata, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina November 17, 2022. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -An Argentine court sentenced Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to six years in jail and disqualified her from holding public office in a high-profile corruption case on Tuesday.

The powerful vice president, who has temporary immunity due to her current role, will not face immediate prison time and is expected to appeal the sentence, with the case likely to spend years winding through higher courts.

Technically, she could run for office while the appeals are pending, but she said on Tuesday that she "would not be a candidate for anything" in next year's general election.

Fernandez de Kirchner, who served as president for two terms between 2007 and 2015 and commands rock-star crowds of supporters, faced charges of alleged corruption in the awarding of public works during her presidency. She has denied the allegations and called the court a "firing squad."

In a livestreamed sentencing, judges from Federal Court 2 in Buenos Aires city found Fernandez de Kirchner guilty as the "criminally responsible author of the crime of fraudulent administration to the detriment of the public administration."

The court acquitted her on another count of "illicit association".

Prosecutors had alleged that public works contracts were handed to construction magnate and ally Lazaro Baez, who channeled money back to Fernandez de Kirchner and late husband Nestor Kirchner, also a former president. Defenders of the vice president maintain she is a victim of judicial persecution.

Baez was also sentenced on Tuesday to six years in prison.

'JUDICIAL MAFIA'

"It is clear that the idea was always to condemn me," Fernandez de Kirchner said in a live video on her YouTube platform after the sentencing. "This is a parallel state and judicial mafia."

She suggested - though didn't say outright - that she would appeal the verdict, adding that the real impact would come from being disqualified for elected office.

"In 2023 I will not be a candidate for anything, I will no longer have privileges," she said, adding she would step down when the current government term ends in December next year. "My name is not going to be on any ballot."

Lawyers said that Fernandez de Kirchner would not go to jail any time soon due to a likely long appeals process and her immunity while serving as vice president. She would need to leave or be removed from office before she could be sent to prison.

"She is one of the officials whose removal requires a political trial," said lawyer Alejandro Carrio, adding that higher courts could spend years going over appeals up to the Supreme Court. "I do not see the process with a case of this magnitude taking less than three years."

The country is on edge after a long economic crisis and inflation heading toward 100%. Supporters of Fernandez de Kirchner gathered in the streets after she survived an assassination attempt this year.

The ruling Peronist government of President Alberto Fernandez is facing a tough battle to fend off a challenge from the conservative opposition in the 2023 election.

(Reporting by Nicolás Misculin; Additional reporting by Belén Liotti; Editing by Deepa Babington and Rosalba O'Brien)

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