In the last ten days, a series of court rulings in favor of high ranking figures associated with the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration – both party members and individuals linked to it – have turned the hallways of the federal courthouses of Comodoro Py into the latest political battlefield.
Not only have representatives of the Cambiemos coalition come out to criticize judges from different courts – causing a clash between two branches of government – but there are also rifts within the Judicial branch itself, something extremely unusual for the officials in charge of ruling over the most high-profile corruption cases in the country.
It all began on March 16, when media and business tycoon Cristóbal López was released from pre-trial arrest by a court of appeals, in the context of a case in which he had (and still is) been indicted for allegedly defrauding the government.
In case you don’t remember, López, along with his former business partner Fabián De Sousa, has been accused of withholding AR $8 billion from the government by not transferring the money from tax revenue generated by customers pumping fuel at their gas stations.
In the same ruling, the court also decided that López should be judged for alleged tax evasion, rather than the initial fraud accusation, something that enraged government representatives even more.
This change would mean that López could avoid facing criminal charges if the AFIP tax collecting agency grants his company a moratorium.
Then last week, two more events added to the pile of collective anger: the releases of both Carlos Zannini (who was Legal and Technical Secretary during the Kirchner administrations) and of controversial social leader Luis D’Elía.
Both of them had also been placed under pre-trial arrest last November, after being indicted in the AMIA cover up case; former President Cristina Kirchner is also indicted for allegedly covering up Iran’s role in the 1994 AMIA bombing in exchange for trade deals.
But wait, there’s more: the recent decision by Federal Judge Luis Rodríguez to remove Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli from a case investigating the alleged embezzlement of AR $260 million destined to revamp a massive coal mine and build an electric grid and a train in the city of Río Turbio, in the Santa Cruz Province.
The government has condemned this decision because Julio De Vido, who used to be Planning Minister during the Kirchner administrations, is also on pre-trial arrest as a result of a request from Stornelli. Cambiemos leaders speculate that the judge removed him from the case to pave the way to order his release without opposition.
In fact, the Anti-Corruption Office (OA) led by former PRO Deputy Laura Alonso requested it be annulled and the judge be removed from the case instead.
As described above, these events have led representatives of the executive to come out to criticize the decisions made by the members of the Judiciary. President Mauricio Macri took the lead in an interview, calling out the judges that determined López be released.
“We will appeal the ruling, because it outraged me. The main issue here is not his freedom, but the change in the accusation,” said Macri in a recent interview with Luis Majul.
However, it was firebrand National Deputy and co-founder of the Cambiemos coalition Elisa “Lilita” Carrió who put herself at the forefront of the battle.
Besides agreeing with Macri about the López case, she requested the Council of Magistrates – the body in charge of overseeing the judges’ activity, among other faculties – investigate whether the judges had been bribed to act in that way.
The ruling was controversial to the extent that the Supreme Court requested the Council to investigate whether there had been any “irregularities” (not bribes) in the conformation of the court of appeals that issued the ruling.
The Supreme Court’s suspicion revolves around the criteria used to select the third member of the court of appeals. Usually, these courts have three members, but in this case there were two. Since they did not agree about whether to release López, they had to bring someone in who could break the tie.
However, instead of leaving it to a draw, court president Jorge Ballestero directly picked a judge, Eduardo Farah.
Ballestero, who voted in favor of releasing López, said Farah had already been drawn previously to rule over an associated case, and only acted in accordance with a bylaw that indicates courts ruling over all connected procedures should be the same. The Council still has not determined if it is satisfied with the explanation.
Farah has stood by his decision, remaining steadfast against the government for criticizing him and adding more fuel to the institutional fire.
In a rather unusual move, he went to TV show Animales Sueltos to defend his ruling, and criticized Macri saying that while “he is entitled to his opinion,” he should “be more cautious with what he says, because he is the President of the country.”
He also denied having received bribes with a suggestive line: “I did not receive a single peso and ruled over what I had to. We are not all the same,” he said, hinting that maybe someone else has fallen into those practices.
However, Carrió speculates that this event is merely part of a larger plan, aimed at getting former Planning Minister Julio De Vido released from prison as well.
Como dijimos el miércoles, sigue en marcha el operativo para liberar a De Vido.
— Elisa Lilita Carrió (@elisacarrio) March 24, 2018
In Carrió’s eyes, De Vido, along with Cristina Kirchner, were the masterminds of a plan aimed at looting the government’s coffers while holding office. The former minister is still in prison, but, as mentioned, the removal of Prosecutor Stornelli from the Río Turbio case was interpreted by the government as a sign of his release being imminent.
According to Clarín, De Vido agrees, and is already planning his moves for when he returns to the political scene. Don’t forget De Vido is a national deputy, and since he still has not been sentenced in any of the cases in which he has been indicted, he could go back to holding his seat.
The ruling opened another battlefront within Comodoro Py: Stornelli publicly criticized Federal Judge Luis Rodríguez for removing him, arguing he focused more on finding an excuse to do so, rather than investigating the events. He anticipated he will appeal the decision.
This clash is extremely unusual, considering the first instance judges and prosecutors of Comodoro Py are few – 12 each – and have to work together constantly, in several different cases.
But all of their actions are currently under the spotlight, and they seem to have decided to look after their own individual interests, rather than presenting a united front.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about a branch that it is supposed to be considered impartial and a cornerstone in the concept of checks and balances.
sBut taking into account the number of corruption cases under investigation in Argentina, the officials’ ability to decide the fate of the country’s main political actors, and the amount of times they have used it in their favor, they are considered part of the Argentine Game of Thrones as well.
When contrasted with the shockwaves these two decisions caused, the release of Zannini and D’Elía didn’t generate a lot of political commotion.
In this case, the tribunal that made the decision joined other colleagues who have progressively gone against the doctrine that put them behind bars in the first place: a ruling issued by Judge Martín Irurzún, who argued that former officials facing corruption cases still wielded enough political power to obstruct investigations, a sufficient enough reason to imprison them until deciding their fate.
The ruling was extremely controversial given its timing, as some argued it was issued especially to justify the pre-trial arrest of high-profile Kirchnerite figures.
Those against it argued that in that case, officials from the current government who are under investigation wield even more power, and there are more reasons to put them behind bars.
In his request to release Zannini and D’Elía, Prosecutor Gabriela Baigún said they no longer have ties with the offices they once held, nor with any other one from the Executive Branch. “It can’t be said, then, that they have any residual influence that would allow them to throw wrenches into the process’ gears,” she said in her request.
The Comodoro Py court is at the center of the scene now.
Time will tell who emerges victorious from this round.