Argentina's highest criminal court has acquitted former president Carlos Saúl Menem (1989-1999) on Thursday of allegations he smuggled arms shipments to Ecuador and Croatia in the 1990s when both countries were involved in armed conflicts, controversially overturning a 2013 conviction.
"The ruling was decided today [Thursday], but it is not strictly a declaration of innocence," a source inside the court told the AFP news agency, explaining that the judges did not rule on the merits of the case but considered that there was gone too long without a final judgment.
Menem, 88, had been sentenced by a lower court to seven years in prison for "aggravated smuggling" as the co-author of shipments of more than 6,000 tons of military weapons, which he authorised to go to Venezuela and Panama. Instead they ended up in Ecuador and Croatia.
At the time, Argentina was barred from supplying Ecuador with weapons since it had a peacekeeping role after Ecuador and Peru fought a brief war in 1995. Croatia was under a United Nations arms embargo as war ravaged the former Yugoslavia.
Menem has denied the charges, saying he thought the arms were headed to Panama and Venezuela. As a senator for his home province of La Rioja, he has immunity from arrest.
He appealed the 2013 conviction to the Supreme Court, which passed it to the Federal Chamber of Criminal Cassation. The case against Menem some 23 years ago, in 1995, when he was still ruling in Argentina.
On Thursday, the criminal court annulled the judgment because it considered that the "reasonable time" principle to finalise the sentence had not been met. The smuggling of mortars, land mines, grenades, rockets and missiles took place between 1991 and 1995.
"Everything passes .... and this has passed. I love you, old man," Menem's daughter Zulemita wrote on Twitter.
Others fiercely rejected the ruling.
"The same judicial branch that processed the case for 22 years without a firm sentence, now declares Menem innocent because too much time has passed," said Cambiemos (Let's Change) lawmaker Graciela Ocaña, adding that ruling guaranteed "impunity."
Menem, who governed Argentina from 1989 to 1999, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2015 for embezzlement. He did not go to prison for that conviction either due to his position as a senator.