Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who governed Argentina as president between 2007 and 2015, is to face another trial for corruption, Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio ruled Friday.
The news comes with the former head of state locked in an election campaign, just five weeks before the country goes to the polls for an election that will decide whether President Mauricio Macri will win re-election.
Fernández de Kirchner, who remains popular among her core supporters, is the vice-presidential candidate on the front-running Frente de Todos ticket, headed by Alberto Fernández. She is due to hold a campaign event this Saturday in La Matanza, a Peronist stronghold in Buenos Aires Province.
The corruption charges come under the framework of so-called 'cuadernos' ("notebooks") case, one of Argentina's most high-profile graft probes to date, which Bonadio closed yesterday and sent to trial. The date for the start of the trial has not yet been set.
The investigation, which is focused on alleged bribes and corruption related to public works contracts, is based on detailed records chronicling kickbacks collected over a decade of alleged crimes. The details were allegedly recoded by by Oscar Centeno, a former driver and chaffeur detailed to the Planning Ministry and its ex-secretary of coordination and administration Roberto Baratta.
The investigation, which sent shockwaves through the political and entrepreneurial scene when it broke, was open for over a year in total and ended up involving almost the entire construction sector (including members of President Mauricio Macri’s family such as his brother, Gianfranco Macri, and his cousin, Ángelo Calcaterra). More than 30 of those called to testify have taken plea bargains and turned state's witness.
Nonetheless, Fernández de Kirchner's chances of actually going to trial are remote since she currently enjoys parliamentary immunity. If Peronist hopeful Alberto Fernández wins the October 27 election and she is confirmed as vice-president next month, it would take an impeachment to bring her to court.
Bonadio yesterday again asked for the former president's immunity to be removed but his request has fallen on deaf ears until now in the Senate (with the resistance headed by Macri’s running-mate, Senator Miguel Angel Pichetto). The judge has yet to set a date for the trial.
"The appointee will be brought to trial for acts of corruption committed while holding the maximum position of the National Executive Power, its consequences extend to society in general in view of the serious damage caused," Bonadio said in a filing, charging that the former president was the "head of an illicit association."
He has also accused her of being the co-author of a crime of "passive bribery." Allegations against Máximo Kirchner, the former president's son, and leaders from La Cámpora were dismissed.
As well as the former president, around 50 former officials and businessmen will also face trial, including Aldo Roggio, Enrique Pescarmona and Calcaterra.
Julio De Vido, who served for 12 years as planning minister under Fernández and her late husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner, will also face trial as one of the organisers of the alleged "illicit association." His second-in-command at the Planning Ministry, Baratta, will also stand trial
Both are currently detained behind bars, though De Vido intends to apply to be held under house arrest in December, when he turns 70 and becomes eligible.
The prosecution estimates that funds diverted via the kickbacks scheme total at least US$160 million, starting from 2003 when the senator’s late husband Néstor Kirchner reached the presidency.
This is not the first time the ex-president has been ordered to stand trial – since leaving office, the ex-head of state has been dogged by legal woes. There are 13 open cases against her in the courts.
Last February she was also indicted for corruption, this time for the irregular concession of public works to crony tycoon Lázaro Báez in Santa Cruz province (currently governed by her sister-in law Alicia Kirchner).
There are also half a dozen charges centred on money-laundering via the family’s Patagonian hotel chain, cases involving her children Máximo Kirchner and Florencia Kirchner, among others.
Gregorio Dalbón, one of the former president's lawyers, described the accusations against the ex-president as "political persecution."
"There is no proof, no evidence against her. The cases seek to prevent her from competing in the elections and what they have achieved is the opposite, her image is intact. She is free because she is innocent," Dalbón told the AFP news agency.
Fernández de Kirchner has just returned to Argentina from Cuba, where she spent more than a week visiting her daughter Florencia Kirchner, who has been on the island receiving medical treatment for the last six months.