Former president Mauricio Macri on Wednesday denied having ordered surveillance on the families of 44 sailors who died when the ARA San Juan submarine sank in 2017.
The 62-year-old made a brief court appearance before Judge Martín Bava in Dolores, some 200 kilometres (124 miles) south of the capital, and submitted a written statement in which he proclaimed his innocence.
"I did not spy on anyone, I never ordered [anyone] in my government to spy on anyone. I never saw any report on the crew of the San Juan [submarine] or any other ship," it said.
The hearing was accompanied by raucous scenes outside the courthouse, as a media scrum attempted to question the former president as he arrived by car for the hearing.
Macri was forced to issue an apology later Wednesday evening, after footage emerged of him gripping a microphone from the pro-government C5N television news channel as he exited the vehicle and throwing it to the ground. It was subsequently damaged in the process, according to reports.
"My apologies for what happened today when I got out of the car. It was a reflex action when I saw the microphones coming on me. I'm sorry that it ended up in the water," he posted on Twitter.
The ARA San Juan submarine disappeared in November 2017. When it was found just over a year later, it was at a depth of more than 900 metres in a desolate area of the South Atlantic, some 460 kilometres southeast of the Patagonian city of Comodoro Rivadavia.
All 44 crew members died in the tragedy. The submarine had been crushed from an implosion apparently caused by a technical fault. Authorities decided against attempting to refloat it.
The espionage case began with a criminal complaint by the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) Director Cristina Caamaño, who uncovered evidence indicating that relatives of the late crew were spied on during the Macri administration’s time in office.
Family members of the sailors told investigators they were followed and wiretapped, filmed and intimidated into abandoning any claims related to the incident.
Macri is accused of ordering, allowing, organising and executing the "systematic carrying out of intelligence tasks expressly prohibited by law" between December 2017 and the end of 2018. He could face a potential prison sentence of between three and ten years if he is found guilty of violating Argentina’s National Intelligence Law, although in this case aggravating circumstances could also be considered.
At a court hearing last week, the ex-Cambiemos leader asked for the case to be thrown out as the court did not have the authority to lift secrecy provisions on state intelligence to allow him to testify.
The former president strenuously denies allegations he was aware of or ordered any illegal espionage and claims the government, under pressure following poor results in recent primary elections, is seeking to persecute him ahead of crucial upcoming midterm elections on November 14.
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.
The court will decide within 10 days whether Macri should be charged or not.
Judge Bava has also ordered the prosecution of former Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) directors Gustavo Arribas and Silvia Majdalani, who reported to Macri, on charges they carried out “illegal espionage” on the relatives, who were desperate to know the fate of their loved ones.
Both Arribas and Majdalani deny the allegations against them.