In scenes likely to be captured by cameras and beamed across the world, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will sit in the dock this Tuesday as the first trial against her for alleged corruption offences begins.
The court date follows on from a week of Judicial controversy, in which the nation’s highest court faced anger from government-aligned politicians across the board and citizens.
However, responding to a fierce backlash from the government, the Supreme Court confirmed on Thursday that the much-anticipated trial will go ahead as scheduled on Tuesday, May 21.
The case involves allegations that Fernández de Kirchner favoured businessman Lázaro Baez in the attribution of 52 public works contracts worth around US$1.2 billion during her 2007-2015 presidency.
A total of 13 people will be in the dock, though most eyes will be focused on the Unidad Ciudadana leader, who is expected to challenge President Mauricio Macri’s bid for re-election this October.
The case is highly symbolic, not only because it will be the first to put the former president in the dock, but also because it was the first to produce enough evidence to lead to corruption charges against the senator for Buenos Aires Province.
It also comes just six months before a crucial election, in which the Unidad Ciudadana leader looks likely to challenge Mauricio Macri for the Casa Rosada. She has yet to confirm her candidacy.
The Supreme Court’s Uturn came in the wake of ruling earlier in the week that sparked controversy and looked like it might lead to the trial’s postponement.
The justices on Tuesday ruled in favour of a demand by her defence team earlier this week they would review the case file for the so-called ‘Vialidad’ (“Road Works”) case probing alleged irregularities in the granting of tenders for five public works projects in Santa Cruz province to businessman Lázaro Báez’s Austral Construcciones firm, in order to evaluate a legal argument presented by the defence team.
However, on Thursday, the Supreme Court said the review it ordered “does not suspend the pending oral proceeding.” It would return the documents by the start of the hearing, it added.
Thursday’s declaration from the justices came in the wake of an earlier ruling from the nation’s highest court that her opponents feared could delay the trial into the presidential campaign season or beyond. Rebuffing those claims, the Supreme Court said the review it ordered “does not suspend the pending oral proceeding.” It still would have to return the docum e n t s b y t h e start of the hearing, it added.
In a statement, the court chaired by Chief Justice Carlos Rosenkrantz, explained that” the measure is for the sole purpose of examining the case” and that once the files had been inspected, they would be returned to Federal Oral Court 2, which is handling the trial, “in a timely manner. “
On Thursday, Justice Minister Germán Garavano said the “it is important” that the trial went ahead, in order to underline that no-one was above the law in Argentina.
“It’s good, given the social commotion and the very strong demand from the people [against impunity], that the Court clarify these points,” he said.
Garavano also dismissed reports that the government had engaged a “judicial operator” in order to ensure the trial went ahead.
Speaking Thursday, thelead justice of the court that will trial the case, Jorge Gorini, told Radio La Red that “the trial has a starting date for Tuesday, May 21, and until now there are no changes, it remains.”
With the trial now almost certain to get underway midday Tuesday at Oral Criminal Court No. 2, led by judges Jorge Gorini, Rodrigo Giménez Uriburu and Andrés Basso, preparations are mounting for what should be an eventful day.
Fernández de Kirchner is accused of having favoured companies owned by Báez during her presidency from 2007-2015 and that of her late husband Néstor from 2003-2007. Her lawyers claim the accusations are unfounded and that there is no proof of favouritism in the awarding of public works contracts in Santa Cruz, a Kirchner stronghold, during her tenure.
Now a senator for Buenos Aires Province, Kirchner is protected from pre-trial detention due to her partial parliamentary immunity, which protects her from imprisonment but not prosecution.
The 66-year-old, who is one of 13 individuals facing charges, must attend the first day of the trial, which is expected to last a year. She does not have to attend other days, though she must be present for a reading of the allegations and the delivery of a verdict, as the close of events.
Among those joining in the dock are former Kirchnerite officials Julio De Vido and José López, as well as disgraced businessman Lázaro Báez.
Prosecutors say Fernández de Kirchner was linked to the case by López, who was caught red-handed in 2016 trying to hide a bag containing US$9 million in cash into a convent near Buenos Aires.
Around 160 witnesses are expected to testify in the trial, including businessmen Carlos Wagner, Enrique Eskenazi, Eduardo Eurnekian and Ángelo Calcaterra, the cousin of President Mauricio Macri. The Unidad Ciudadana leader’s defence team has also called politicians including Alberto Fernández, Sergio Massa, Aníbal Fernández, Juan Manuel Abal Medina and Jorge Capitanich.
The plaintiffs, the Judicial Information Centre confirmed Thursday, are the Public Prosecutor’s Office (headed by prosecutor Diego Luciani), the Anti-Corruption Office and the Financial Information Unit (UIF).
Implicated in more than 10 corruption investigations, this is the first such case against the former president to reach court.
Of the other investigations in which she has been implicated, the highest-profile is the so-called ‘cuadernos’ corruption notebooks scandal. It revolves around the meticulous records kept by a ex-government chauffeur, Oscar Centeno, of cash bribes – allegedly worth US$160 million between 2005 and 2015 – he is said to have delivered from businessmen to government officials.
At press time last night, Lázaro Báez requested the suspension of the trial, with his legal team arguing the Supreme Court has yet to rule on some issues. In addition, his lawyers argued that two of the judges should be excused as they are already overseeing another case in which he is involved.