Amid rising political tensions in Argentina, the nation’s former President Mauricio Macri testified in federal court, where he was questioned over allegedly having spied on the relatives of crew members of a submarine ship that sunk four years ago, killing all on board.
Dozens of cheering supporters as well as members of the opposition gathered outside the court on Thursday, in the town of Dolores, some 200km (124 miles) from the capital Buenos Aires.
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Macri, 62, was subpoenaed by Martin Bava, a federal judge for his role in alleged espionage on the families of the 44 crew members who died after the sinking of the ARA San Juan submarine in 2017. Its wreckage was discovered a year later and all on board were declared dead.
The development came as the nation battled rising poverty amid an economic crisis aggravated by the pandemic. Argentina is also just weeks away from legislative elections scheduled for November 14. The vote is expected to serve as a memorandum on the administration of President Alberto Fernandez, a centre-left leader.
Observers have said that Argentina’s governing coalition, now in its second year in office, is trying to recover from a bruising defeat in the primary election last month, where the opposition won most districts.
“If they believe that with their aggressions, disqualifications, slander and their permanent obsession with me they are going to diminish my commitment to the Argentines and to the defense of our values, they are very wrong,” Macri, who was president between 2015 to 2019 said in a tweet.
Macri, whose centre-right party, Cambiemos, is one of three parties that form the opposition coalition Juntos por el Cambio, is being accused of ordering the nation’s intelligence agency to spy on the relatives of the victims of the submarine between 2017 and 2018. If found guilty, he could potentially face between three and 10 years in prison, according to local media reports.
The espionage charges date back to 2020, when Cristina Caamano, director of the Federal Intelligence Agency filed a criminal complaint alleging to have uncovered evidence showing that relatives of the late crew were being spied on during Macri’s time in office.
The relatives allege they were followed, recorded, and filmed as intimidation to not file suit in the submarine deaths.
“A significant number of documents were found addressed to then-President Macri, exhaustively describing the things that we said,” Luis Tagliapietra, father of one of the deceased crew members told The Associated Press.
“Not only was it in the tone of a narrative, it was also a transcription of entire sentences that we had said in private,” Tagliapietra said.
Speaking outside of the court after the hearing, Macri’s defence lawyer Pablo Lanusse blasted the charges, as well as the proceedings as politically motivated.
“We just attended a shameful court session that makes a sham out of the justice system,” Lanusse told reporters in remarks aired on live television, “because it was absolutely clear from the judge’s animosity towards Macri his intention to try him before the elections.”
“This is all a show, sadly it’s a show,” he said.
The government has denied the accusations that the subpoena was politically motivated. It also traded accusations of putting on a “show” in advance of the elections.
“It is evident that he (Macri) is trying to put on a kind of show with his entourage in Dolores,” Justice Minister Marin Soria told El Uncover Radio on Thursday.
Macri had been living in the United States and according to local media, had told the court had ignored a subpoena to appear in court earlier in October citing “international commitments”.
In an Instagram post on October 5, Macri announced that he had accepted a teaching position at the Adam Smith Center for Economic Freedom at the Florida International University, in Miami, Florida.