BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – Argentina’s former President Cristina FernÃ¡ndez appeared in court Tuesday for the first in a series of corruption trials ahead of a planned run for the vice presidency.
The trial comes just days after FernÃ¡ndez surprised Argentines by announcing that she would seek the vice presidency, with her former Cabinet chief Alberto FernÃ¡ndez at the top of the ticket. She had been expected to run directly against conservative President Mauricio Macri during the October election.
Security agents cordoned off the federal courtroom in Buenos Aires as FernÃ¡ndez arrived to face charges of heading “an illegal association” for embezzlement involving public works projects during her 2007-2015 presidency. She denies any wrongdoing and she remains a highly popular if divisive figure among Argentines.
“A new trial where I should have never been summoned is beginning,” FernÃ¡ndez said on Twitter. “This is a new act of persecution with only one goal: to place a former president who opposes the current government in the defendant’s bench during a presidential campaign.”
In separate cases, she faces formal investigations into allegations of money laundering and criminal association during her administration and that of Nestor Kirchner, her late husband and predecessor.
Although several former Argentine presidents have faced trials, FernÃ¡ndez is the only one to do so while having a clear chance of returning to power.
The weekend announcement that Alberto FernÃ¡ndez – no relation – would instead lead the ticket shook up the election race and forced political parties to rethink their strategies.
Analyst Roberto Bacman of the Buenos Aires-based Center for Public Opinion Studies said that FernÃ¡ndez’s announcement shifted the spotlight from the trial and softened her image before the judges.
“It’s not the same, the photo (of her) sitting on the bench as a candidate for president, as the photo of Alberto FernÃ¡ndez on some act on the campaign trail,” he said.
Many voters are frustrated by Argentina’s recession and one of the world’s highest inflation rates and blame Macri for policies that they say have deepened the crisis. The Argentine peso also lost more than half of its value versus the U.S. dollar last year.
Cristina FernÃ¡ndez is known for her populism and unorthodox economic policies, and while some credit her for leading Argentina out of an economic crisis, others blame her for creating its current turmoil.
Macri promised to curb inflation and end poverty, but so far has failed on both counts. He was forced to seek a record $56 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund to try to tame the crisis.
FernÃ¡ndez is accused of receiving bribes on public works contracts in the southern province of Santa Cruz for Lazaro BÃ¡ez, a businessman who was close to her and her late husband. Her running mate, who also served as Cabinet chief during her late husband’s presidency, and is now one of the at least 150 witnesses in the case.
If found guilty she could face up to 15 years in prison, although her senatorial immunity protects her from arrest.
The Supreme Court ruled last week that it would review the federal court file to evaluate legal arguments presented by the FernÃ¡ndez and others who are accused.
But the top court later said the trial would start as scheduled governing-party politicians complained that the ruling seemed aimed at protecting FernÃ¡ndez. Many Argentines also took to the streets of the capital banging pots in protest to demand the trial.