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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s former president, has been charged over corruption accusations in public works projects, marking the most significant legal setback for the embattled populist leader.
Judge Julián Ercolini cleared the way on Tuesday for legal proceedings against Ms Fernández in what is the second of several cases being investigated to go to trial. She was indicted in May over allegations of manipulating the central bank’s sale of future dollar contracts in the final months of her presidency.
Ms Fernández’s Peronist party lost elections against the centre-right Mauricio Macri a year ago, after he had campaigned on a pledge to battle corruption. Since then her political movement has been damaged by a string of charges that include money laundering, bribery and embezzlement.
Many Argentines hope that these moves are the start of a cleansing of public life in Argentina. Renewed zeal for attacking corruption in Latin America has seen the downfall of several powerful figures this year, including Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s former president.
In the latest signs of the legal noose tightening, Judge Ercolini approved Ms Fernández’s trial for alleged illicit association and administrative fraud. The case is connected to infrastructure projects awarded to a company owned by Lazaro Báez, a close associate now in jail.
Ms Fernández took to Twitter to defend herself on Tuesday, claiming that charges of illicit association were used “by all the dictatorships to persecute opposition leaders”. She dismissed Judge Ercolini as a “mouthpiece” for Mr Macri’s justice minister, accusing him of waiting until now to pursue a case that he had been sitting on for more than eight years.
“Will he also try the 46 per cent and the 54 per cent [of the population] who voted for us in 2007 and 2010?” she asked, proceeding to mock Mr Macri for going on holiday at the same time as sacking his finance minister, Alfonso Prat-Gay on Monday. The president has appointed Nicolás Dujovne, a fiscal hardliner, as his successor.
She has repeatedly claimed that allegations against her are designed to smear her legacy and distract attention from Argentines’ economic troubles. About a third of the population live in poverty.
Judge Ercolini’s resolution also ordered that about $640m of Ms Fernández’s assets be frozen, and indicted Julio de Vido, a former planning minister, and José López, a former public works secretary. The latter was imprisoned this year after trying to hide bags containing about $9m in cash in a monastery.
Other former officials being investigated over corruption accusations include Ms Fernández’s cabinet chief, Aníbal Fernández (no relation), who is accused of masterminding an ephedrine trafficking ring, and Amado Boudou, the vice-president.
Although observers point to parallels with the situation in Brazil, where politicians of all stripes and top business leaders face charges, many fear a similar purge will not follow in Argentina because many judges are politically motivated and not fully independent.
So far, many are disappointed with the results of Mr Macri’s pledges to undertake thorough judicial reform. However, analysts argue that this is unlikely to happen until after legislative elections next year.
In the latest legal setback for one of Latin America’s most charismatic leaders, who styled herself on the Argentine heroine Evita Perón, Ms Fernandez will be tried for allegedly steering public contracts to Mr Báez. The millionaire businessman has been under investigation since 2013 as the frontman for Ms Fernández and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, in an elaborate money laundering scheme. This involved luxury hotels in Patagonian resorts that news reports claim are usually empty.
Elisa Carrió, an important figure in Mr Macri’s coalition and an outspoken crusader against corruption, assured the Financial Times earlier this year that Ms Fernández would “end up in prison” since she was involved in “almost all the lawsuits” connected to the previous government.