Judge seeks removal of immunity, arrest of former president of Argentina

Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on Thursday denounced as political “persecution” a judge’s demand that she be arrested on suspicion of treason for allegedly covering up Iran’s purported role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center here.

“This is an invented case about acts that don’t exist,” Fernandez, recently elected a senator, told reporters at the national Congress as allied lawmakers surrounded her. “What is unfolding is an absurdity,” charged Fernandez, who was president from 2007 to 2015.

Earlier Thursday, a federal judge had asked Argentina’s Senate to remove Fernandez’s immunity as a lawmaker so that she could be arrested on suspicion of treason.

Fernandez was elected to the chamber in October and will take office Sunday.

The widow of former President Nestor Kirchner, Fernandez has been a polarizing figure in Argentine politics for more than a decade and faces several other criminal charges, including corruption, money laundering and financial mismanagement while in office.

The treason allegation unveiled Thursday represented the first time that a judge had requested Fernandez’s arrest.

The judge, Claudio Bonadio, alleged that a 2013 deal reached while Fernandez was president helped shield Iranians allegedly involved in Argentina’s worst terrorist attack: the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Assn. center in Buenos Aires. The attack killed 85 and wounded hundreds.

The aftermath of the bombing has left a legacy of swirling allegations and broad mistrust in the nation’s political and law enforcement systems.

Iran’s government has repeatedly denied any role in the attack and refused to hand over suspects in the case.

Fernandez has called her mounting legal woes a political vendetta and denied all wrongdoing. Still a key figure in the Argentine left, she blamed her major political antagonist, President Mauricio Macri, a center-rightist, for orchestrating “these maneuvers and ... persecution.”

Macri's Cabinet chief, Marcos Pena, said the treason case was "strictly judicial" in nature and required a "well-done investigation" and thorough defense of those accused.

In his request for the ex-president’s arrest, the judge backed a finding by a former prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, that the 2013 agreement brokered during Fernandez’s administration ensured that no charges would be pursued against Iranians allegedly linked to the attack. Fernandez defended the accord as a comprehensive effort to solve the mystery of the terrorist strike.

Nisman, 51, was found dead in his apartment here on Jan. 18, 2015, of a gunshot wound to the head. His death came days after accusing then-President Fernandez of covering up Iran’s role in the bombing.

Authorities initially ruled the prosecutor’s death a suicide. But Argentine officials are investigating the possibility that Nisman was killed.

The case of Nisman’s death has become a highly charged political issue here. Fernandez says her government had no role in the death.

On Thursday, several former aides of Fernandez were arrested on the same treason charges that the prosecutor is pursuing against the ex-president. Former Foreign Minister Hector Timerman was being held under house arrest because of failing health, authorities said.

It is unclear whether the Argentine Senate will honor the judge’s request and move to strip immunity from Fernandez, who still has a substantial political base despite her legal problems.

Special correspondent D’Alessandro reported from Buenos Aires and Times staff writer McDonnell from Mexico City.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com


UPDATES:

3:50 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting, including reaction from Fernandez.

11:10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details.

This article was originally published at 6:30 a.m.

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