- - Tuesday, December 27, 2016

BUENOS AIRES — Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez was indicted Tuesday on wide-ranging federal charges of corruption and conspiracy, putting a major kink in her political comeback hopes a year after voters turned out her left-leaning government and months before critical midterm elections next year.

In a 794-page document, federal Judge Julian Ercolini formally accused Ms. Fernandez and key officials of her administration of having conspired to “illegally and deliberately seize funds assigned for road construction” before and during her eight-year presidency that ended in December 2015.

Mr. Ercolini also froze $643 million of Ms. Fernandez’s assets — or about 90 times the net worth the outgoing president indicated in a 2015 sworn declaration. The same measure was applied to her co-defendants, who include two former Cabinet officials and Carlos Kirchner, a cousin of her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.

The judge slammed Ms. Fernandez for having “violated her duty to faithfully manage and protect national property,” claiming she helped route millions to businesses of Lazaro Baez, a Kirchner family friend turned construction magnate. Wednesday’s decision comes on top of a May indictment and $1 million freeze on her personal assets in a probe involving currency manipulation.

The case could mark a stunning fall from grace for Ms. Fernandez, who with her husband dominated the political scene here for more than a decade but who has seen her legacy challenged by Mauricio Macri, the center-right businessman who succeeded her as president.

The former president’s latest legal troubles are different in size and scope because they cannot be considered political, said Joaquin Morales Sola, a prominent columnist for the La Nacion daily and longtime critic of the Kirchners.

“If all levels of justice ratify Ercolini’s decision, it will go to trial,” Mr. Morales Sola said. “This will end in a trial, and she will certainly go to jail.”

Mr. Macri, who promised to aggressively fight corruption when he took office a year ago, meanwhile, stands to reap the political fruits as he heads into midterm elections, Mr. Morales Sola said. “The contrast [to Ms. Fernandez] benefits Macri,” he said.

But with the wheels of justice turning slowly in Argentina — the appeals will likely take months to play out — Ms. Fernandez may well be protected by immunity once the final verdict comes in: That’s because the former president has been flirting with seeking a congressional seat in the coming elections, set to take place in late 2017.

That tactic has been successfully tested by one of Ms. Fernandez‘ predecessors, former President Carlos Menem, who had become a senator for La Rioja province by the time a federal court sentenced him to seven years in prison over 1990s illegal arms sales. Today, the 86-year-old Mr. Menem continues to serve in Congress, though he is among those up for re-election next year.

Argentina’s electoral setup, meanwhile, means that Ms. Fernandez — like Mr. Menem a two-term president once re-elected in a landslide — could easily work her way back into Congress. But her popularity has dipped precipitously amid this year’s indictments, and only hard-liners would now back her return to the Casa Rosada, Mr. Morales Sola said.

“The rest of the population wonders why she is not in jail yet,” he said.

Fernandez loyalists, however, attribute the former leader’s legal troubles to a supposed conspiracy between Mr. Macri and business and media interests backing the new president.

“We are convinced that this is a political persecution,” former Front for Victory Rep. Julia Perie told The Washington Times, echoing a November letter in which Mr. Fernandez had accused Mr. Macro of “inventing” judicial proceedings against her and her family.

Now a lawmaker at the Mercosur parliament in Montevideo, Ms. Perie said she lacked “any confidence at all” in the independence of Argentina’s judicial system and would wholeheartedly back the rumored Fernandez candidacy for a congressional seat.

“Who will decide what happens is the [former] president,” she said. “She leads this political movement strategically.”

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