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Ex-president Kirchner charged in Argentina corruption scandal

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Argentina's ex-president Cristina Kirchner was charged with corruption on Monday as a judge asked that her legislative immunity be lifted so she can be detained.

[BUENOS AIRES] Argentina's ex-president Cristina Kirchner was charged with corruption on Monday as a judge asked that her legislative immunity be lifted so she can be detained.

She is accused of having accepted tens of millions of dollars in bribes in the notorious "corruption notebooks" scandal that has rocked Argentina's political and business elites.

As a senator, Kirchner is protected by lawmakers' immunity from imprisonment, although not from prosecution.

Unless that immunity is lifted, which is highly unlikely, she cannot be jailed, even if found guilty.

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However, last month the Senate did vote to partially lift her immunity so that investigators could search her three luxury homes.

Kirchner is accused of heading an "illicit association."

She has already been called in for questioning twice by Claudio Bonadio, the judge leading the wide-ranging corruption investigation, and is due to appear again on Tuesday.

During her first two hearings she refused to answer Judge Bonadio's questions, instead submitting a written statement, as is her right.

Both Kirchner, 65, and her late husband, Nestor, whom she succeeded as president in 2007, are suspected of having accepted millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen in exchange for public works contracts.

'COLLUSION' 

According to Judge Bonadio's indictment, released on Monday, "between 2003 and 2015, collusion between civil servants and business leaders created a system distributing bribes to civil servants," in which the company bosses "claimed to have succumbed to official pressure."

In order to gain public works contracts, companies "needed to deliver a percentage of the total amount paid by the state to civil servants designated by Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Kirchner," added Judge Bonadio.

The payments were compiled by ministerial chauffeur Oscar Centeno in meticulous records kept in notebooks.

More than a dozen former government officials and 30 elite businessman are implicated in the case first reported by La Nacion newspaper on August 1.

Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli has said a total of US$160 million in bribes was handed over between 2005 and 2015.

At her last court appearance, Kirchner stressed her "categorical and strict denial" that she "committed any crime" or was involved in "any illicit activity."

Also facing trial in several other corruption cases, she has previously accused Judge Bonadio of carrying out "judicial persecutions" aimed at derailing a possible presidential run next year.

Kirchner's immunity will not be lifted, according to Miguel Angel Pichetto, the head of the Federal Argentina group, the most represented in Congress; Kirchner is a member.

Mr Pichetto said immunity can only be lifted "in case of a conviction and not for remand."

However, former president Carlos Menem, who served two terms from 1989-1999, has held onto his senate seat, to which the 88-year-old was re-elected in 2017, despite a seven-year conviction for smuggling arms to Ecuador and Croatia.

A dozen other ministers have been remanded in custody, though, including deputy planning minister Roberto Baratta, whose chauffeur was Centeno.

Planning Minister Julio De Vido and another of his deputies, Julio Lopez, did not need to be remanded in custody as they were already behind bars for other offences.

Lopez's dramatic arrest in June 2016 gripped the nation as he was caught in the act of trying to hide nine million dollars in a Buenos Aires convent.

AFP