President Alberto Fernández sparked uproar and a firm repudiation from Argentina’s main opposition coalition on Thursday after controversial statements once again underlined the country’s stark political divide.
Quizzed by the TN news channel on Wednesday about the ongoing corruption trial against Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and 12 others investigating alleged public works graft during the former president’s 2007-2015 presidency, Argentina’s current leader delivered what opposition leaders described as a “threat” to the prosecutor leading the case – a claim he later denied.
Responding to questioning, Fernández had said that AMIA special prosecutor "Alberto Nisman committed suicide" and that he wished that Prosecutor Diego Luciani, who is leading the trial against the accused, "does not do something similar."
Nisman was found dead with a bullet through his head in his Puerto Madero flat in 2015, just four days after denouncing the then-president Fernández de Kirchner for an alleged pact with Iran to cover up the 1994 terrorist bomb destruction of the AMIA Jewish community centre, claiming 85 lives, and on the eve of a Congress appearance to substantiate these charges. His death remains unsolved, though critics of Fernández de Kirchner insist she was part of a conspiracy to murder Nisman.
Fernández’s comments came after a journalist mentioned to him that the Supreme Court had asked "that the security of judges and prosecutors be reinforced" given the high-profile nature of the so-called ‘Vialidad’ trial, which dominated the week’s headlines.
In the first instance, the head of state said: "I would recommend that you read treatises on criminal law. As much as he [Luciani] shouts justice or corruption, the only thing he did was to say a lot of nonsense."
He continued: "Up to now, what happened to Nisman is that he committed suicide. So far nothing else has been proven. I hope that prosecutor Luciani doesn't do something like that.” The president then stressed again that what Luciani had done "seemed to be of an astonishing legal weakness,” firmly backing his vice-president.
Responding to the comments on Thursday, PRO lawmaker Alejandro Finocchiaro accused the president of "threatening prosecutor Diego Luciani" during the TN interview. The deputy also confirmed that the Juntos por el Cambio caucus in Congress would move forward with a request for Fernández’s impeachment.
The measure is being promoted by the deputies of the hardest wing of the PRO, according to reports, and those from the Coalicion Civica. A criminal denunciation has also been filed.
Opposition leaders offered widespread condemnation.
"Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Alberto Fernández and Kirchnerism have to stop the systematic and permanent attack on institutions and the division of powers. Yesterday, Mr. president, you crossed a limit," said Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta.
Through his Twitter account, the PRO leader added: "These threats and provocations are barbaric, of an irresponsibility never seen in Argentina and are completely out of place. What did he mean? It is time to stop and contribute to social peace."
"You can't say that, president. Do you realise the seriousness of your words?" tweeted PRO chair Patricia Bullrich.
Luciani, who on Monday asked for the vice-president to be given 12 years in prison for her alleged crimes, replied directly to the criticism.
"It is worrying, the serious subjugation of the institutions by the President of the Nation," the prosecutor told the Noticias Argentinas news agency.
In a statement, the opposition coalition expressed its “deepest repudiation” of the remarks, which it described as “a veiled threat to the personal safety of the federal prosecutor." They called on the government to “absolutely guarantee the physical integrity of the judges and prosecutors who are prosecuting cases involving the vice-president.”
Presidential spokeswoman Gabriela Cerruti said Thursday that Fernández "did not make any comparison" between Luciani and his late peer Alberto Nisman in relation to the suicide, as she denounced a campaign against the Peronist leader.
"The President did not make any comparison last night: it was made by journalists, it was on the front page of a website all afternoon, they are trying to generate it from different spheres," the spokeswoman charged.
When asked about Fernández's reference to Nisman's death, Cerruti replied: "Has the Argentine justice system proven that prosecutor Nisman was murdered? There is no judicial instance that says that prosecutor Nisman was murdered and we are not going to resurrect the case every time the opposition wants to talk about any issue other than the persecution of Cristina.”
On Thursday, Attorney General Eduardo Casal met with Luciani and fellow-prosecutor Sergio Mola to offer support.
After speaking with the duo, he later wrote a card to President Fernández expressing his displeasure at the remarks that he said ""imply a clear disturbance in the exercise of the prosecutor's functions."