Argentina's former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner appeared in court Tuesday for the first in a series of corruption trials ahead of a planned run for the vice presidency.
The trial comes just days after Fernández de Kirchner surprised Argentines by announcing that she would seek the vice presidency, with her former Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández at the top of the ticket. She had been expected to run directly against conservative President Mauricio Macri during the October election.
Fernández de Kirchner spent much of the session liaising with her lawyer and occasionally checking her phone as the court read out a series of dramatic, if not shocking, allegations of corruption.
The former president had "been part of an illegal organisation, in the capacity of its leader, alongside other officials in different areas of the State". These included her late husband, former president Néstor Kirchner and former Planning Minister Julio de Vido.
The name Lázaro Báez was among those most heard from the court secretary, who read the accusations against the accused. Báez was seat just three rows in front of the former head of state, for whom is accused of acting as a frontman in her illegal business activities.
Fernández de Kirchner led a "scheme that benefited the businesses of Lázaro Báez to the detriment of the State's interests", the court read.
Security agents cordoned off the federal courtroom in Buenos Aires as Fernández de Kirchner arrived to face charges of heading "an illegal association" for embezzlement involving public works projects during her 2007-2015 presidency. She denies any wrongdoing and she remains a highly popular if divisive figure among Argentines.
"A new trial where I should have never been summoned is beginning," Fernández de Kirchner said on Twitter. "This is a new act of persecution with only one goal: to place a former president who opposes the current government in the defendant's bench during a presidential campaign."
At the courtroom, she listened to the charges against her while she sat next to her attorney, but she did not comment. Politicians, union leaders and human rights leaders supporting her sat nearby separated by a glass panel.
Outside, dozens of sympathisers chanted her name and waved national flags in sky-blue and white. In separate cases, Fernández de Kirchner faces formal investigations into allegations of money laundering and criminal association during her administration and that of Nestor Kirchner, her late husband and predecessor.
Although several former Argentine presidents have faced trials, Fernández de Kirchner is the only one to do so while having a clear chance of returning to power.
The weekend announcement that Alberto Fernández — no relation — would instead lead the ticket shook up the election race and forced political parties to rethink their strategies.
Analyst Roberto Bacman of the Buenos Aires-based Center for Public Opinion Studies said that Fernández de Kirchner's announcement shifted the spotlight from the trial and softened her image before the judges.
"It's not the same, the photo (of her) sitting on the bench as a candidate for president, as the photo of Alberto Fernández on some act on the campaign trail," he said.
Many voters are frustrated by Argentina's recession and one of the world's highest inflation rates and blame Macri for policies that they say have deepened the crisis. The Argentine peso also lost more than half of its value versus the US dollar last year.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is known for her populism and unorthodox economic policies, and while some credit her for leading Argentina out of an economic crisis, others blame her for creating its current turmoil.
Macri promised to curb inflation and end poverty, but so far has failed on both counts. He was forced to seek a record $56 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund to try to tame the crisis.
The trial is happening "because Macri knows that without it, Cristina wins," Nelson Chiavetti, a Fernández de Kirchner sympathiser said outside the courtroom.
Fernández de Kirchner is accused of receiving bribes on public works contracts in the southern province of Santa Cruz for Lazaro Báez, a businessman who was close to her and her late husband. Her running mate, who also served as Cabinet chief during her late husband's presidency, is now one of the at least 150 witnesses in the case.
"Cristina will be able to prove that the charges are false," Alberto Fernández told reporters. "It's silliness that she's involved in this case."
If found guilty she could face up to 15 years in prison, although her senatorial immunity protects her from arrest.
The Supreme Court ruled last week that it would review the federal court file to evaluate legal arguments presented by the Fernández de Kirchner and others who are accused.
But the top court later said the trial would start as scheduled governing-party politicians complained that the ruling seemed aimed at protecting Fernández de Kirchner. Many Argentines also took to the streets of the capital banging pots in protest to demand the trial.