Argentina's Supreme Court says the first corruption trial against former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will start next week, despite a judicial order that her opponents feared could delay the trial into the presidential campaign season or beyond.
The court this week said it would review the case file to evaluate legal arguments presented by the former leader — a move widely expected to delay a trial set to start on Tuesday (May 21).
But after a strong political reaction from Fernández de Kirchner's opponents, the the court issued a statement on Thursday saying the review "does not suspend the pending oral proceeding." It still would have to return the documents by the start of the hearing.
The Supreme Court's decision to review the case file stemmed from a desire to "avoid future augments" against the validity of the case, court sources told Perfil.
Her supporters say the Mauricio Macri government is using the former leader as a scapegoat, with the trial serving to divert attention from Argentina's economic woes.
"Her judicial situation is nothing to worry about," her former Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández said Tuesday, just hours before the Supreme Court decision sent shockwaves through her opponents, many of whom want to see the former leader jailed as opposed to moving toward a return to power.
The former president is likely to run against Macri in October's presidential vote, though she has yet to confirm her candidacy. Polls put the rivals neck-a-neck in voting intention, with observers claiming Argentina's first democratically-elected female president will seek to appeal to undecided voters with a more moderate discourse to the one that characterised her final years in power.
“We can build something different," the former president said last Thursday, during the presentation of her memoir at the Buenos Aires Book Fair, where thousands of supporters gathered hoping to hear a formal announcement of intention to challenge Macri.
The deadline to register is June 22. On Tuesday, in a move that increased speculation over a run for the Casa Rosada she met with the national leadership of the Justicialist Party (PJ).
Fernández de Kirchner stands accused of committing a number of crimes during her presidency, particularly allegations she and her officials laundered of public funds through the Kirchner family hotel businesses and received kickbacks and bribes from public works contractors.
The so-called "Vialidad" (Road Works) cases centres on alleged irregularities in the granting of tenders for five public works projects in Santa Cruz province to businessman Lázaro Báez's Grupo Austral firm.
The case is emblematic, not only because it was to be the first to put Fernández de Kirchner in the dock, but also because it was the first to produce enough evidence to lead to corruption charges against the senator.
Government ministers and allies came out swinging on Wednesday when news broke of the Supreme Court's decision to demand documentation from the lower court, which prompted fears the case could collapse.
"This is a very unusual ruling", said Justice Minister Germán Garavano, speaking to Radio Mitre. "It has a very strong political ingredient. It is a very simple decision from the Court."
"Evidently, politics has too much influence over the Judiciary," he alleged.
For his part, Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña said the decision "prompts anger in society because there is a strong demand for justice to be served."
Anti-Corruption Office (AI) chief Laura Alonso said the ruling "smelled of Alberto Fernández," a reference to Fernández de Kirchner's former Cabinet Chief.
"We hope the trial begins next week because there are no grounds for it not to," Alonso said.
The Anti-Corruption Office is a plaintiff in the case.