President Alberto Fernández unveiled his long-awaited judicial reform bill this week amid fierce criticism from the opposition, which alleges the move is an attempt to ensure “impunity” for ex-government officials facing corruption allegations, in particular Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
The Peronist leader argues the move will restore “credibility” to the nation’s federal justice system, which he says switches gears depending who is in power, but this week members of the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition were quick to condemn the proposed reform package, linking it to moves at the Council of Magistrates, the body that oversees judges.
Speaking on Friday, former Justice minister Germán Garavano alleged that the former president was behind the bid to reshape Argentina’s justice system.
"Cristina Kirchner's hand is clearly behind the reform. That sector of the ruling party. The president had clearly spoken [previously] that the [Supreme] Court should not be touched. He even praised the judges that we appointed," stressed the former official, who served during the Mauricio Macri administration’s 2015-2019 term in office.
Opposition lawmakers rejected the proposed changes even before the announcement, alleging they are an attempt to promote “impunity” for corrupt officials and manipulate the court system.
"There is no possibility of serious judicial reform in this difficult social and economic context,” said Maxi Ferraro, the president of the Civic Coalition ARI, one of three parties that make up the Juntos por el Cambio opposition coalition. “Much less when a plan of impunity is sought and to break the actions of the independence of justice."
UCR Radical lawmaker Mario Negri, the head of the coalition's bloc in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, said the opposition would "analyse the judicial reform with the utmost rigour," adding that they would be "extremely firm in defending the independence of the Judiciary."
Opposition supporters also expressed their dismay on Wednesday night in a cacerolazo pot-banging process in Buenos Aires City and other cities nationwide. The call to protest, which spread quickly on social media using the hashtag ‘#1ANoALaReformaJudicial,’ was not officially endorsed by the government, though some lawmakers expressed support.
The government rejects claims of improper motivation. In comments to Reuters, Justice Minister Marcela Losardo said that the move sought to “end the concentration of federal justice.”
“We have heard the claims that this reform suits the government or the vice-president’s bid for impunity. Nothing is further from reality – those currently in the system will continue to have their cases tried by the same judges,” said Losardo.
In his speech on Wednesday, the president criticised the behaviour of the Judiciary during his predecessor’s time in office. During the 2015-2019 Mauricio Macri administration, a number of cases against ex-government officials were opened, most notably a string of corruption investigations involving former president and current Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and other Kirchnerite figures.
He went on to slam the use of "preventive imprisonment,” which he said violated the principle of being innocent before proven guilty. A number of Kirchnerite figures were remanded in custody after being arrested and charged, rather than being bailed.
Without naming his vice-president specifically, the Peronist leader alluded to what Fernández de Kirchner has described as the "judicial persecution" facing her. She too has faced pre-trial arrest warrants issued in her name, though parliamentary privileges have prevented her being put behind bars.
In a noticeable flourish, Fernández also deployed a particularly emotive phrase in Argentine discourse – “Nunca más” – to vow that political persecution would no longer be a part of his reformed justice system. "Let's say never again to a policy that criminalises dissent to eliminate the adversary," he declared.
Opposition critics say the proposed changes would allow the government to do just that, saying that proof of their intentions can be seen in the fact that Carlos Beraldi, one of Fernández de Kirchner's lawyers, is to sit on the reform committee. Government officials have said that claim is absurd, citing Beraldi’s record and his renown as reason for his inclusion.
Speaking to a local radio station, Garavano reiterated the opposition’s main line of attack, saying Bernaldi was “owned” by Kirchnerite-aligned businessman and media mogul Cristóbal López.
"It seems to me a political mistake and a very ugly symbol that stains this whole process. We see a double influence of Beraldi, both in judicial reform and in this Council. It is very bad. That makes the entire political spectrum and the judges suspicious,” he said.
“Still, there are valuable people within the commission. I respect several of them, " he admitted.
Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero, however, lamented the complaints as he took questions in the Chamber of Deputies on Thursday, saying the opposition had not even bothered to read the text of the bill before condemning it.
"This is a government that exercises democratic dialogue and not just says it,” he said. “Many who today ask for frank, broad and sincere political dialogue have anticipated that they are against bills that they have not even read."