- - Thursday, December 7, 2017

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Once one of Latin America’s most prominent leftists and the world’s most powerful women, former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez now faces a fight to stay out of prisons after she was indicted on Thursday on charges of high treason and trying to cover up Iran’s involvement in a 1994 terrorist bombing.

As Ms. Fernandez vowed to fight the charges, federal Judge Claudio Bonadio asked Congress to strip her of immunity preventing her arrest.

Using “private channels of communication and negotiation” with Tehran, Ms. Fernandez concocted an “orchestrated criminal plan” to shield the Iranian nationals behind the attack on the AMIA Jewish community center, which killed 85, Judge Bonadio wrote.

Adding even more intrigue to the case is that fact that Thursday’s charges largely build on a case filed by the late special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, whose mysterious death from a gunshot wound — hours before he was set to testify before Congress in January 2015 — had rocked Argentina at the height of Ms. Fernandez’s power.

Her political clout has faded, but the populist firebrand has been trying to engineer a political comeback and styles herself as leading the opposition against center-right President Mauricio Macri, her successor and longtime nemesis. A defiant Ms. Fernandez on Thursday accused Mr. Macri and the judiciary of a conspiracy to silence dissenting voices.

“Mauricio Macri is the orchestra’s conductor, and Claudio Bonadio directs the judicial score,” she said. “They try to inflict personal and political harm on opponents.”

The charges against her, Ms. Fernandez said, were “made up,” “absurd” and “based on non-existent facts.” But legitimate or not, her hope to regain political momentum is complicated by an avalanche of legal troubles, with three indictments on corruption charges already pending in federal courts.

Ms. Fernandez’s vice president and planning minister have been jailed awaiting trial, and another former cabinet official, Legal Secretary and 2015 vice presidential candidate Carlos Zannini, was taken into custody Thursday on Judge Bonadio’s orders. Former Foreign Minister Hector Timerman was put under house arrest.

Still, though voters dealt her party a sizable defeat in October’s mid-term elections, Ms. Fernandez did manage to win a Senate seat, which grants her broad immunity from arrest.

The chamber must now “seriously” consider lifting those protections, said its president pro tempore, Federico Pinedo. But a detention is unlikely given that Congress is in recess until March and, in the case of Carlos Menem — yet another former president-turned-senator who faced legal woes — has blocked arrest warrants for years.

While Ms. Fernandez does not join many of her closest allies behind bars, Judge Bonadio’s 491-page indictment marks a stunning fall for a leader “who two years ago was the most powerful woman in the country,” prominent La Nacion columnist Joaquin Morales Sola said in an interview.

“Even though the Senate isn’t going to easily approve the loss of immunity, politically this does isolate her even more,” Mr. Morales said, noting that formerly allied lawmakers on Wednesday had already decided to caucus without their one-time leader.

The cover-up charge may be the most legally significant part of the case, Mr. Morales said.

“The nucleus of the case is Nisman’s complaint [about Iran],” Mr. Morales said. “But as a political message, [treason] is extremely strong.”

The judge focused heavily on the circumstances leading to the 2013 so-called “memorandum of understanding” between Argentina and Iran, which the judge — detailing secret, high-level talks in Syria and Switzerland — concluded was all but dictated by Tehran.

“Foreign Minister Timerman, a person who lacks even basic university education … claims he drafted it in a hotel whose name he does not recall and accompanied only by his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister [Ali Akbar] Salehi,” the judge wrote. “Conclusion: Either Hector Timerman lies, which is serious, or the ‘memorandum of understanding’ was drafted by Iran and signed, just like that, by Timerman.”

Ms. Fernandez, for her part, countered the judge lacked jurisdiction over her executive authority to conduct foreign policy and arbitrarily deemed the 1994 terrorist attack an “act of war” to justify the treason charge.

But the timing and trajectory of the case made it difficult to buy into her characterization of Judge Bonadio as a Macri puppet, Mr. Sola said.

“It just so happens that this case precedes the Macri administration,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t think Bonadio is taking orders from anyone.”

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