Politics, Politics

Could Argentina’s President Go to Jail?

The president of Argentina is facing charges for her alleged involvement in covering up an Iranian terrorist plot. What happens now?

02.14.15 2:35 AM ET

BUENOS AIRES — Argentine Federal Prosecutor Gerardo Pollicita on Friday sought to indict President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, her Foreign Minister Héctor Timmerman and Congressman Andres Larroque for allegedly covering up the involvement of Iranian officials in the 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish center that killed 85 people and injured hundreds more.

It is a political earthquake in a country that has seen more than its share of military dictatorships, coups and financial instability, so what happened today in Argentina is a scandal with global impact.

Pollicita's push follows the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman on Jan. 18, who was found dead with a shot to the head in his apartment. Just a few days before he was found, he was preparing to file charges against the president.

Pollicita acted on Nisman’s 289-page criminal case, which is now in the hands of Judge Daniel Rafecas, who can decide to move forward or dismiss the case.

Nothing is predictable in a country in shock over the death of a prosecutor who was just about to indict the president. A country that after 12 years of Kirchner’s government will vote for a new president in eight months. A country in which, according to the polls, most of the public thinks Nisman was the victim of a crime that will never be solved. A country where federal prosecutors called for a pro-Nisman march next Wednesday to demand independence from political influence.

Kirchner and her allies have accused federal prosecutors of siding with opposition parties in a bid to orchestrate a judicial coup against her.

On Friday morning, Kirchner’s chief of staff, Anibal Fernandez, accused the prosecutors organizing the Feb. 18 march of anti-Semitism and drug trafficking, and the president has yet to offer her condolences to Nisman’s family.

Such is the confusion in the country these days that the government’s official twitter account only contained information about the boom in tourism related to the Carnival celebration.

All of this is happening eight months before the next presidential election to determine Kirchner’s successor. She has already served two terms and cannot run again, but evidence of high-level corruption is piling up against her in court and if her party loses the next elections to the opposition, her judicial immunity would be in peril.

So is there any chance that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner could go to jail?

Not as long as she is in office. According to Argentine law, no judge can convict the president, the vice president, or cabinet ministers without an impeachment. And that is practically impossible because Kirchner’s Partido Justicialista has a parliamentary majority in both houses.

But elections are set for October and her term ends on Dec. 10. She could be arrested after then.

Nisman reportedly thought the Kirchner government was not the only one impeding the investigation into the bombing. Former President Carlos Menem, who served from 1989-1999, and many of his ministers were also prosecuted for impeding the investigation into the attack.

In 2012, Menem was also indicted for covering up alleged Hezbollah and Iranian involvement, and will go to trial before the end of this year. There is little to no chance, however, he will serve jail time because he is a sitting senator and, like Kirchner, enjoys judicial immunity from prosecution.

Just hours before Pollicita's bombshell, the government presented its official response to Nisman’s accusations. The Treasury Attorney-General’s Office filed a 68-page response to every point in Nisman’s charge sheet. Along with 15 pieces of what it says is supporting evidence, the government painted Nisman’s accusation as a “fictional framework” with no basis in reality.

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“We will provide Your Honor evidence that I believe is of upmost legal importance in order to show the unfounded nature of the complaint presented by Dr. Nisman,” the response states.

It concludes: “There is no evidence whatsoever … that proves the existence of a conduct attributable to the President of the Argentine Republic or to officials of the Federal Government that can constitute the crimes.”

This document was the strongest response of Kirchner’s government since the death of Nisman. Early official responses after his death only raised more doubts and confusion, with Kirchner posting a bizarre note on Facebook suggesting suicide. A few days later, she reversed course and said Nisman did not take his own life, but that he had been killed by her political opponents in an attempt to smear her. Or maybe it was rogue intelligence agents, or Mossad.

So there are three aspects to Nisman’s case: His death, about which there has been a storm of speculation but little evidence as to what actually happened; the investigation into the actual attack on the Jewish center, in which all evidence so far points to Iran; and lastly, the alleged cover-up of the Iranian involvement in the case.

Those answers to all these questions are tied together and are yet to come. The political battle rages, with harsh accusations and bizarre anecdotes, such as when the president herself and one of her most important ministers responded to a tweet sent but later deleted by actress Mia Farrow a few days after the death of Nisman. Farrow wrote: “Looks like Argentina’s Prez not only covered up 1994 bombing of a Jewish center, but also killed the prosecutor” and linked to a New York Times story.

The government has spent a lot of energy defining its enemies, but it never seems to think about how to get Kirchner out of the judicial mess she has found herself in.