Former president Mauricio Macri briefly appeared before a judge Thursday in a probe investigating claims his government illegally spied on relatives of 44 sailors who died in the tragic sinking of the ARA San Juan Navy submarine.
But the hearing in Dolores, some 200 kilometres (124 miles) south of the capital in Buenos Aires Province, was dramatically postponed within minutes after the former president's lawyer argued the court "does not have the authority" to lift secrecy provisions on state intelligence for him to testify.
But late Thursday, current President Alberto Fernández signed a decree shortly before leaving for the G20 summit in Rome that lifted those secrecy provisions, allowing his testimony, officials said.
“It was suspended due to an embarrassing error by the judge. We find out only today that the court does not have the release of intelligence secrecy [measures] so that Macri can testify," the former president's lawyer, Pablo Lanusse said as he left the courthouse.
"The judge summoned us knowing that Macri could not testify. Judge Bava’s animosity towards Macri and his attempt to prosecute him before the elections has become absolutely clear,” he declared, describing events as “a circus” and “a show.”
According to Noticias Argentinas, the former president intended to present a voluntary statement without answering questions.
The ARA San Juan submarine disappeared mysteriously in November 2017. When it was found just over a year later, it was at a depth of more than 900 metres below the South Atlantic waves in an underwater canyon of the continental shelf, some 460 kilometres southeast of the Patagonian city of Comodoro Rivadavia.
It had been crushed from an implosion apparently caused by a technical fault. Authorities eventually decided against attempting to refloat it.
The illegal espionage claims date back to 2020, when Cristina Caamano, then the government-appointed trustee of AFI federal intelligence agency, filed a criminal complaint saying she had uncovered evidence showing that relatives of the late crew were spied on during Macri’s time in office.
Family members of the 44 crew members told investigators they were followed and wiretapped, filmed and intimidated into abandoning any claims related to the incident.
Macri, 62, is accused of ordering the espionage. He risks between three and 10 years in jail for allegedly violating Argentina's intelligence laws.
No new hearing date has been set.
Macri led the country from 2015 to 2019 and is now the leader of Argentina's centre-right opposition coalition, Juntos por el Cambio, the successor of his own Cambiemos front.
On Thursday, Lanusse questioned the timing of the hearing, observing its proximity to key legislative elections next month.
‘Using a tragedy’
Macri addressed more than 100 supporters who had gathered outside the court to greet him, and accused the authorities of "using a tragedy" for political purposes during a campaign for November 14 elections for half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and a third of the Senate.
"We are calm. We know what we did and our good intentions," he told his followers, before denouncing "a culture of dark power that uses a tragedy to harm" opponents. He called for a return to "a healthy culture of power, which includes an impartial justice system."
"If they think that these two years of slander, aggression, persecution – almost a permanent obsession with me – are going to undermine and diminish my commitment to you, they are very mistaken," declared the former president, who was joined at the rally by opposition politicians including Patricia Bullrich, Jorge Macri and Fernando Iglesias.
"We hope that Macri... will tell us the truth about why we were illegally spied on," Luis Tagliapietra, the father of 27-year-old crew-member Alejandro Damian Tagliapietra, told AFP.
He expressed frustration over the suspension of the hearing. "It is more down to political pressure exerted by the leaders of Juntos [por el Cambio] than a strictly legal issue," said the lawyer, who said the former president could have given testimony without breaking secrecy rules, especially as he had already prepared a statement.
Macri has repeatedly denied ordering surveillance of the families and says the claims against him are “false accusations” pushed by the government. Officials have denied those claims.
“It is evident that he [Macri] is trying to put on a kind of show with his entourage in Dolores,” Justice Minister Martín Soría told the El Destape radio station on Thursday.
Germán Garavano, who served as justice minister in Macri's government, described the case as "more political than legal" in comments to another local station, Colonia AM550,
Judge Martín Bava has ordered the prosecution of AFI secret service heads Gustavo Arribas and Silvia Majdalani, who reported to Macri at the time.
Bava initially subpoenaed Macri earlier this month to testify about his role in the alleged espionage but the former president was in the United States when he got the order to testify. He later travelled to Qatar, missing two hearings, before agreeing to attend court on Thursday.
The judge said in a letter that "the then-president was fully aware of the follow-up carried out by the Federal Intelligence Agency regarding the relatives of the crew members" of the submarine.
Macri in turn criticised what he called "the incompetence of Judge Bava... and irregularities of the judge, denounced for possible falsehoods in another case."
In March, two former Argentine military chiefs were sanctioned over the sinking tragedy.
Retired admiral Marcelo Srur was handed "45 days of arrest" for having given the Defence Ministry an "incomplete" picture of what happened.
Claudio Villamide, the former commander of the Submarine Force, was dismissed after he was found guilty of a "lack of care and neglect of the troops and equipment under his charge."
Two active captains were given detentions of 20 and 30 days and the former head of a naval base in the south of the country was detained for 15 days.