BUENOS AIRES — A federal judge on Thursday indicted former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on treason charges and sought her arrest over allegations that she covered up possible Iranian involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
In court documents, Judge Claudio Bonadio accused Fernández of obfuscating the Iranian role in the attack, which killed 85 people, in exchange for a potentially lucrative trade deal. The court requested the lifting of her immunity from prosecution, a protection she enjoys as a sitting senator.
Underscoring the seriousness of the charges, authorities conducted raids linked to the case on Thursday, arresting three of Fernández's former aides and associates. Héctor Timerman, her former foreign minister, was placed under house arrest.
The charges stem from an investigation initially conducted by Alberto Nisman, a crusading prosecutor who accused Fernández of a coverup in 2015 and was later found dead in the bathroom of his apartment with a bullet in his right temple.
Though rare, the lifting of parliamentary protection is not unprecedented. In October, Congress voted to lift the protection afforded to her former planning minister, Julio De Vido, who was facing charges of fraud and corruption.
Fernández, a Peronist, served as president of Argentina from 2007 to 2015 and once formed part of a cadre of left-leaning leaders in Latin America, including Venezuela's late Hugo Chávez. She has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing while in office, and on Thursday she lashed out at the fresh charges.
"This has nothing to do with justice or democracy," Fernández told reporters in Buenos Aires. "There's no cause, no crime, no motive. There was a judgment without cause. God knows it, the government knows it, President [Mauricio] Macri knows it, too."
There is little precedent for prosecuting treason in Argentina. Local media has reported that the country's only previously applied charge of treason dates to 1936, when Maj. Guillermo Mac Hannaford was accused of selling information to Bolivia and Paraguay.
And while Fernández has only about a dozen hardcore supporters in the Senate, observers say it doesn't look probable that the chamber will revoke her immunity. Some argue that such a move could risk turning her into a political martyr for a left-wing Peronist movement that has been losing traction in the country since Macri took office in 2015.
The charges come a month after a new police report reignited the Nisman case, which has captivated Argentina. His mysterious death came only days after he alleged that Fernández and Timerman had colluded to shield Iran's role in the car-bomb attack on the AMIA jewish community center. In 2005, Nisman concluded that Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a Hezbollah operative from Lebanon with Iranian backing, had carried out the act of terrorism.
An initial report concluded that Nisman had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But a new police report obtained by the Associated Press in November listed key evidence that suggested foul play. Nisman's nasal septum, for instance, was broken and he had suffered blows to his hip and elsewhere. A strong anesthetic was found in his body.
Before his death, Nisman reportedly wiretapped officials and uncovered information in connection to a "Memorandum of Understanding' that Argentina signed with Iran on January 27, 2013, in Ethiopia. He argued that it outlined a plan to "collaborate with Iran on its goal to accelerate and support nuclear development" in exchange for an oil-for-grain trade deal and a finding by Argentina that the Iranians were innocent in the 1994 attack, official court documents said.
However, the timing of Fernández's indictment also focuses the spotlight on Bonadio, the judge. He is under investigation over allegations of money laundering and illicit enrichment, with some critics suggesting that he may be targeting Fernández as a smokescreen.
"The higher his profile, the more involved he is in politically sensitive cases and the less able anyone will be to bring him down for corruption," said Mark Jones, a fellow of political science at Rice University's Baker Institute. "He'll be able to deflect them as being politically motivated."
Faiola reported from Miami.