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AP Explains: Corruption trial against Argentina's Fernández

Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández was in court this week for the first in a string of trials charging her with corruption. Fernández remains a hugely popular but divisive figure in Argentina, and she recently surprised many when she announced that she will run for vice president instead of the presidency in this year's elections. Here's a look at the trial and its possible impact on this year's presidential election.

WHAT ARE THE CHARGES?

In the initial trial, which is expected to last about a year, Fernández faces charges of heading a criminal association that defrauded the state by illegally granting public works projects in the southern province on Santa Cruz during her 2007-2015 presidency.

Supporters of former President Cristina Fernandez gather outside a federal court as Fernandez appears for the first in a series of corruption trials, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (AP PhotoMarcos Brindicci)

Prosecutors allege about 50 of those infrastructure contracts benefited Lazaro Báez, a businessman who was close to her and her late husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner. Prosecutors also say that a disproportionate amount of projects were allocated to the province through Báez and that several projects were overpriced and many were unfinished.

The center-left Fernández denies any wrongdoing and has called the trial a political "smoke screen." She accuses the administration of her successor, conservative Mauricio Macri, of persecuting her in hopes of distracting from Argentina's current economic troubles and of undermining her popularity.

CAN SHE BE JAILED?

FILE - In this March 31, 2008 file photo, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez, left, talks to her Chief of Cabinet, Alberto Fernandez, during a meeting at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. Cristina Fernandez announced on Saturday her candidacy for vice president in October's general elections on Saturday, May 18, 2019, and that Alberto Fernández will run for the presidency against conservative President Mauricio Macri. (AP PhotoNatacha Pisarenko, File)

Other former Argentine presidents have faced trials, but Fernández is the only one to do so while having a clear shot of returning to power.

If found guilty, she could face up to 15 years in prison.

But it's not that easy: Fernández is currently a senator, which grants her immunity from arrest. That immunity could be lifted only by an unlikely vote of two-thirds of Argentina's senators. If she should be elected vice president, that post also has immunity from arrest.

A man sells T-shirts featuring Argentina's former President Cristina Fernández outside the federal court where she went on trial in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Fernández appeared in court Tuesday for the first in a series of corruption trials ahead of a planned run for the vice presidency. (AP PhotoMarcos Brindicci)

So, even with a conviction, she likely would be either back in Congress or perhaps in the vice president's office.

WHO IS ON TRIAL?

The populist Fernández is among 13 accused in the current trial. Others include her former planning minister, Julio de Vido; her former public works minister, José López; and several others who served during her administration as well as her late husband's presidency.

Hearings will continue in the coming weeks, but Fernández will only be expected to return to court to be questioned and then at end of the trial when she will have a chance to say some final words before the verdict. 

More than 120 witnesses will be called to testify. They include her former Cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández, who is now at the top of her party's presidential ticket.

HOW POPULAR IS SHE?

Human rights leaders, left-wing politicians and unionists showed their support for Fernández at the courtroom Tuesday. Outside, a crowd of sympathizers chanted her name and waved Argentina's national flag.

"Her public support has remained steady for years, even as mountains of evidence of misconduct have come to light," said Benjamin Gedan, an Argentina expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Gedan said, however, that images of the former president in court will definitely not help her attract undecided voters during the October election.

WHAT DO HER CRITICS SAY?

Detractors blame Fernández for endemic corruption and the deterioration of Argentina's economy.

But many Argentines are also suspicious of the courts in a country where scandals often grab headlines before they get lost in slow-moving and often unresolved investigations.

Gedan pointed out that in the latest Pew Research Center survey, "only 18% of respondents in Argentina said they trust the courts."

WHAT OTHER CASES AWAIT?

Fernández faces numerous formal investigations into allegations of money laundering and criminal association.

And, along with other former officials, she also faces trial on charges that she covered up the role of Iranians alleged to be tied to a 1994 terrorist bombing at a Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 people.

The prosecutor who first recommended charges against her in that case, Alberto Nisman, died mysteriously of a gunshot wound days later in a case that is still under investigation.

Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.