Court Clears Ex-President Of Argentina
Menem Ends 5 Months Under House Arrest
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov. 20 -- After 5 1/2 months under house arrest on
arms trafficking charges, former Argentine president Carlos Menem was ordered
today after the Supreme Court ruled there was no conspiracy during his presidency to smuggle weapons to Croatia and Ecuador.
The flamboyant, 71-year-old former president had been held at a friend's
mansion just outside Buenos Aires since June 7, when a federal judge ordered
preventive house arrest on charges of heading a $100 million arms ring during his two terms in office from 1989 to 1999.
The decision to free Menem came after a broad court ruling this morning
upholding the appeal of one of his ex-ministers and former brother-in-law,
Emir Yoma, who
also had been in preventive custody on similar charges. In a 6 to 3 vote in favor of the appeal, the court also dismissed the notion that there had been a conspiracy
during Menem's administration.
That opened the door for Menem's lawyers to file a quick request in a lower court for their client's release, which was approved.
Menem, who still heads Argentina's opposition Peronist Party, has declared
his innocence since the day he was arrested, just hours after his celebrated
Cecilia Bolocco, a former Miss Universe from Chile who is about half his age.
The couple vowed today to return to Menem's home province of La Rioja
in the northwest of the country to meet with family members and political
before taking a long-awaited honeymoon. At a colorful celebration at the mansion where he had been held, Menem -- who has announced his aspiration to return to
the presidential palace in elections set for 2003 -- said, "Now, without rancor or hate, I will go back to work for Argentina."
But the court's decision brought immediate charges of bias from political
leaders and other Argentines, who had spilled into the streets in joy when
Menem -- whose
tenure was plagued by corruption scandals and cronyism that experts say contributed to the brutal economic crisis now besetting Argentina -- was placed under
Menem appointed most of the judges on the Supreme Court who voted in
favor of the appeal. The chief justice of the court is a former partner
in Menem's old law
Other Menem administration officials detained in the scandal -- including former army chief Martin Balza -- were also expected to be freed.
"It's shameful," Horacio Viqueira, a former congressman, told reporters. "The ruling was dictated by the ex-president's friends."
Over the past decade, Menem dodged dozens of scandals that took down
many of his minions, but Judge Jorge Urso ordered the arrest of the former
gathering what he called solid proof that Menem had knowingly masterminded a major weapons ring.
The former president's signature appeared on the order of a weapons
shipment bound for Venezuela and Panama that was diverted to Croatia and
Ecuador in the
early and mid-1990s. Croatia was under a U.N. arms embargo at the time while the sale to Ecuador violated Argentine policy. Argentina was one of the guarantors
of a peace agreement after Ecuador and Peru waged a brief border war in 1995.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the conspiracy allegation had "not been proven."
Menem, however, is not wholly in the clear. He still faces an investigation
on other charges related to the arms sales. For instance, he is being investigated
gains after the Swiss government recently disclosed at least two secret two bank accounts linked to Menem.