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Argentine Vice President Cristina Kirchner found guilty of corruption

Argentina Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner waves as she leaves her home in Buenos Aires for the Comodoro Py courthouse on Dec. 6. (Enrique Garcia Medina/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

BUENOS AIRES — Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a prominent and polarizing figure in Latin America who served two terms as president of Argentina, was convicted Tuesday on corruption charges, sentenced to six years in prison and given a lifetime ban from holding public office.

A panel of three judges found the 69-year-old Peronista, perhaps the nation’s most influential politician of the past two decades, guilty of fraud during her tenure as president for directing millions of dollars in taxpayer money to a family friend. She was acquitted of charges that she headed an illicit organization that engineered bribes and overpricing tied to roadwork projects in Patagonia.

Kirchner has denied wrongdoing and is expected to appeal. She has called the court a “firing squad” engaged in political persecution that’s aimed at keeping her from running for a third term as president next year. As vice president and a senator, she enjoys immunity from incarceration and the ban from running for public office until her appeals are exhausted, which will probably take years.

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“A president is not accountable for the execution and administration of the budget,” Kirchner said in a live video on social media after the ruling was made public. “I do not legislate. I did not sanction budget laws. Those were the deputies and senators. I absolutely proved … that I do not have control over [that].”

She said she would refrain from running for public office next year. An attorney for Kirchner did not respond to a request for comment.

Prosecutors said Kirchner funneled money to construction magnate Lázaro Báez when she was president from 2007 to 2015. Several officials from her administration have been convicted in separate corruption cases.

During her tenure and that of her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, companies owned by Báez were awarded dozens of government contracts to build road infrastructure in the Santa Cruz province. The vast, sparsely populated province in southern Argentina was the Kirchners’ home province and the base from which they launched their political dynasty in the 1980s.

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Prosecutor Diego Luciani called the case “one of the most extraordinary corruption schemes” in Argentine history. Authorities say some 46 billion pesos were awarded to Baez for 51 road projects from 2003 to 2015; prosecutors say nearly half of them were not completed.

Báez registered his company, Austral Construction, days before Néstor Kirchner was sworn in as president in 2003.

“Lázaro Báez, a friend of the then-president and a business partner, became a construction businessman overnight,” Luciani said during the trial’s accusation phase.

Báez, too, was convicted Tuesday and sentenced to six years, as was former public works secretary José López.

The ruling Peronista coalition is straining to draw support beyond its base. Forced to cut spending under an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, the government has been caught between its economic struggles and thin U.S. foreign reserves. It lost the midterm elections last year, and polls show next year will also be challenging.

“It is difficult to think of a time of greater political weakness for [Cristina Fernández de Kirchner], with record rejection levels of around 70 percent as her support base dwindles,” said political analyst Lucas Romero, director of the consultancy Synopsis.

“Her leadership in the party is totally undisputed, even after this sentence,” he said. “But this conviction consolidates her low-ceiling vote intention and is another reason for her to avoid running for president next year.”

In a recent interview with Brazilian media, Kirchner denied Báez was her business partner but acknowledged that he was “friends” with her husband, who died in 2010. Authorities have identified some informal commercial ties.

“In corruption crimes, there is never a receipt or invoice,” said Hugo Alconada Mon, a prominent investigative journalist here. “No formal record says that Cristina and Lázaro were shareholders in a company. But if it has four legs, a tail and barks, one can infer it is a dog.”

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The conviction is a first for Kirchner, who has been investigated on several charges. She was acquitted of some; others were dismissed. They have included corruption charges, but also an accusation that she helped cover up Iran’s alleged role in bombing a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994.

The verdict comes at a difficult time for this South American nation. Annual inflation is approaching 100 percent. Kirchner was targeted in a botched assassination attempt outside her apartment in Buenos Aires. When Luciani requested a 12-year sentence in August, thousands of Kirchner’s supporters took to the streets to express their dismay.

Supporters of Kirchner began gathering outside the courthouse Tuesday morning to protest the widely anticipated decision. They were greeted by increased security.

“The whole investigation is a setup,” said retired schoolteacher Carmen Millan, 73. “It is all lies, and we don’t believe in them. They only want her out of the political race. We are not going to let them do that.”

Former congresswoman Fernanda Vallejos, a Kirchner ally, rejected the verdict.

“It is a sentence written a long time ago, without facts, without evidence to support it,” she said.

But retiree Elena Brumana lauded the result.

“There are judges and prosecutors who dared to sentence her,” said Brumana, 71. “Many feared her for a long time, and now there is a lesser feeling of impunity. Unfortunately, a large part of the Argentine society will continue to believe in her.”