October 4, 2018 will be marked as yet another fateful day in the history of Argentina’s terrible state of its government institutions. In a pretty divided ruling, a Cassation Court acquitted former President Carlos Menem in a case that had been investigating him for illegally selling arms to Ecuador and Croatia while in office since 1995.
Yes, that’s 23 years.
The Court did not issue the ruling because it did not consider him to be guilty. Judges Liliana Catucci and Eduardo Riggi acquitted him because they concluded that too much time had passed for the case to reach a firm sentence, therefore violating the former President’s legal guarantee to face trial within a “reasonable term.”
Considering that Menem never stopped being a public official since the day he was accused, the statute of limitations did not apply to this case, but the judges argued its length violated the former President (currently a Senator) procedural guarantees anyway. The third judge of the Court, Carlos Mahiques, argued on his end that there was not enough evidence to determine Menem had committed the crime.
The term “firm sentence” plays an instrumental role in the court’s argument, because Menem was indeed sentenced to seven and a half years in prison by two different courts: he was acquitted in 2011, but a tribunal overturned the sentence in 2013 and a Cassation Court in 2017. However, the defense of who is commonly known in Argentina as “he-who-shall-not-be-named” (seriously, people here don’t say the Menem name out loud because they say it’s bad luck) appealed the last ruling to the Supreme Court, which determined the case, due to its sensibility, had to be confirmed by the other Cassation court in the federal system. And this was the end.
In its ruling, the judges from this last Cassation Court targeted all other courts that had the case in their hands during the past 23 years, basically blaming them for forcing them to make the decision. The sentence was not published on the Judiciary’s website, but Clarín reported that a relevant paragraph indicated that “it’s been 23 years of comings and goings, as well as procedural decisions aimed at determining whether there was smuggling, something that was not complex to prove. The inexplicable delays can exclusively be reproached to the state’s courts.”
Menem was accused of illegally selling 6.5 tons of weapons to Croatia and Ecuador, countries that during his first presidency were involved in the Third Balkan War and an armed conflict with Peru, respectively. In order to sidetrack the reigning embargo from the UN, which prevented countries from supplying arms to these countries, the then-President signed three secret decrees authorizing the selling of arms to “Panama and Venezuela” between 1991 and 1994. And, in order to hide it from the public, he allegedly ordered the Río Tercero munitions factory be blown up, an explosion that killed seven people and injured 300. For this particular event, four army members were sentenced to prison.
This case has a particular feature: since the former President is disliked by most Argentines, the endemic flaws of the Judiciary were not overshadowed by partisan politics, and the outrage was focused on the system, rather than in accusing the other camp of the political divide of fostering a political persecution plan against the leaders of their parties.
In April this year, the Council of Magistrates – the Judiciary’s body in charge of overseeing its officials – released an audit of the fate the cases in the Comodoro Py Federal Courthouses underwent informing that, in average, the almost 10,000 cases that went through its judges took three and a half year to be concluded, but that almost 20 percent of them have been in their shelves for more than six years; some of them for more than 10; and one for up to 23 years.
The only prominent politician who dared to publicly defend the ruling was the head of the Peronismo Federal Caucus in the Senate – and known Menem ally – Miguel Ángel Pichetto. In an interview with TN, he said that from a legal standpoint, “having a person undergo an investigation for 23 years, with its consequent uncertainty, is too much.”
“It might not be politically correct to say this, and it would be opportunistic for my to function in another way, but it’s been 23 years,” he added. Menem’s brother Eduardo, on his end, did resort to the guidebook for those accused of corruption and celebrated the ruling “put an end to a long persecution.”
The systemic and deliberate lethargy plays an instrumental role in the decadence of Argentine institutions. The almost certain guarantee of impunity for the powerful does nothing but foster the reigning corrupt system in Argentine institutions.