BUENOS AIRES, Argentina â Argentine Vice President Cristina FernÃ¡ndez was convicted and sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison and a lifetime ban from holding public office for a fraud scheme that embezzled $1 billion through public works projects during her presidency.
A three-judge panel found the Peronist leader guilty of fraud, but rejected a charge of running a criminal organization, for which the sentence could have been 12 years in prison. It was the first time an Argentine vice president has been convicted of a crime while in office.
FernÃ¡ndez lashed out at the verdict, describing herself as the victim of a âjudicial mafia.â But she also later announced that she would not run next year for the presidency, a post she previously held in 2007-2015.
The sentence isnât firm until appeals are decided, a process that could take years. She will remain immune from arrest meanwhile.
FernÃ¡ndezâs supporters vowed to paralyze the country with a nationwide strike. They clogged downtown Buenos Aires and marched on the federal court building, beating drums and shouting as they pressed against police barriers.
FernÃ¡ndez roundly denied all the accusations. Argentinaâs dominant leader this century, she was accused of improperly granting public works contracts to a construction magnate closely tied to her family.
The verdict is certain to deepen fissures in the South American nation, where politics can be a blood sport and the 69-year-old populist leader is either loved or hated.
President Alberto FernÃ¡ndez, who is not related to his vice president, said on Twitter that she was innocent and that her conviction is âthe result of a trial in which the minimum forms of due process were not taken care of.â
Prosecutors said FernÃ¡ndez fraudulently directed 51 public works projects to LÃ¡zaro BÃ¡ez, a construction magnate and early ally of her and her husband Nestor Kirchner, who served as president in 2003-2007 and died suddenly in 2010.
BÃ¡ez and members of FernÃ¡ndezâs 2007-2015 presidential administration were among a dozen others accused in the conspiracy. The panel also sentenced BÃ¡ez and her public works secretary, JosÃ© LÃ³pez, to six years. Most of the others got lesser sentences.
Prosecutors Diego Luciani and Sergio Mola said the BÃ¡ez company was created to embezzle revenues through improperly bid projects that suffered from cost overruns and in many cases were never completed. The company disappeared after the Kirchnersâ 12 years in power, they said.
In Argentina, judges in such cases customarily pronounce verdicts and sentences first and explain how they reached their decision later. The panelâs full decision is expected in February. After that, the verdict can be appealed up to the Supreme Court, a process that could take years.
FernÃ¡ndez went on her YouTube channel to say she will not seek further office after her vice presidential term expires on Dec. 10, 2023. âIâm not going to be a candidate for anything, not president, not for senator. My name is not going to be on any ballot. I finish on December 10 and go home,â she said.
Politicians and analysts had noted that until her appeal is settled, FernÃ¡ndez would be free to run for any elected office â from a seat in Congress to the presidency â and obtain immunity arrest by being elected.
âCristina always surprises,â pollster Roberto Bacman, director of Argentinaâs Center for Public Opinion Studies, said of her announcement. But âshe will continue fighting,â he added. âShe places herself in the center of the fight and says that she is not going to hide.â
He said it remains to be seen if the Peronist sector seesk to push FernÃ¡ndez to reconsider her decision.
Patricio Giusto, director of the consulting firm DiagnÃ³stico PolÃtico, predicted FernÃ¡ndez will deepen her âstrategy of victimization and equating herselfâ with Luiz InÃ¡cio Lula Da Silva, the leftist politician who has just been elected president of Brazil after a court overturned his prison sentence for corruption.
During the judicial process, the vice president called herself a victim of âlawfareâ and characterized the Judiciary as a pawn of the opposition media and conservative politician Mauricio Macri, who succeeded her as president in 2015-2019.
FernÃ¡ndez remains the singular leader of the leftist faction of the Peronist movement. Bacman said his surveys show 62% of Argentines want her removed and 38% support her no matter what.
Meanwhile, other cases remain pending against her, including a charge of money-laundering that also involves her son and daughter.
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