BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Former Argentine President Carlos Menem and 11 others were found guilty by an appeals court on Friday of smuggling weapons to Ecuador and Croatia in violation of international embargoes in the 1990s.
Menem, now 82 and enjoying immunity as an Argentine senator, had been acquitted at trial in 2011, but the appellate court said much of the evidence had been mistakenly dismissed, and that there is no logical way the weapons could have been smuggled without Menem's direct participation and approval.
Menem acknowledged signing secret decrees to export weapons to Venezuela and Panama, but said he had no idea that the tons of rifles and ammunition made in Argentina would end up in Ecuador and Croatia, countries subject to international embargoes at the time.
The appeals court called his defense "incomprehensible," given voluminous evidence that customs procedures weren't followed amid pressure from the presidency. The court found that Menem's brother-in-law and "man of confidence," Emir Yoma, acted as his intermediary with the government authorities and others involved in the scheme, and that Yoma also collected money from the companies involved.
"The only person with enough power to influence simultaneously, and over all these years, three different government ministries, their various agencies, the Argentine Army and even Congress, was the President of the Nation, Carlos Saul Menem, through Yoma," the appellate court ruled.
Friday's 237-page ruling by the three-judge panel convicts the former president as "co-author of the crime of smuggling, aggravated by the fact that it involved military weapons and required the intervention of public officials."
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of eight years if Menem were convicted. The appellate court remanded the case to the trial judges for sentencing, taking into account the former president's age and conduct as well as the aggravating circumstances.
In any case, Menem can serve time only if the Senate, which is controlled by the government of Cristina Fernandez, votes to remove his immunity. Fernandez often criticizes the decisions of Menem's presidency, but as a senator, Menem has been a dependable ally of Fernandez, providing a swing vote on critical issues.
Menem's attorney, Maximiliano Rusconi, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. It wasn't clear whether Menem plans to appeal Friday's ruling to the Supreme Court.
Menem's former defense minister, Oscar Camilion, was among those convicted Friday after being found not guilty two years ago, but the appellate court upheld the decision to absolve Yoma, and declared that too much time had passed to pursue criminal charges against Menem's former air force chief, Juan Paulik.
The Menem administration's arms trafficking became public in 1995 when the weapons showed up in Ecuador and Croatia's conflict zones, and ethics watchdog Ricardo Monner Sans filed a civilian complaint. Despite the international scandal it generated, Menem was re-elected with 50 percent support.
The case then progressed slowly as Menem moved from sworn political enemy to dependable ally of the governments of the late Nestor Kirchner and his wife and successor, President Fernandez.
Menem had been held under house arrest for six months in 2001, but at the time he faced only a conspiracy charge and the Argentine Supreme Court set him free. His 2008 trial on the arms trafficking charges included 383 witnesses many testifying from Ecuador, Peru and Europe.
"It was an absurd contradiction" that the trial court found no one responsible despite clear evidence of arms trafficking, Monner Sans said Friday. He said he hopes the appellate verdict sends a different message to the Argentine people: "That it's always worth the trouble to fight."
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