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Argentine ex-president Menem convicted arms smuggling

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Former Argentine president Carlos Menem was convicted on Friday of orchestrating arms smuggling while in office.

The Appeals Court issued a guilty verdict against the 82-year-old Menem, who ruled from 1989-1999, and his then-defense minister, Oscar Camilion, for the smuggling of 6,500 tons of weapons and ammunition to Croatia and Ecuador.

Sentencing was to take place in a different court. Menem was initially acquitted of the charges in 2011 along with more than a dozen other defendants, but prosecutors appealed.

Menem was not present in the courtroom, because of health problems. But his lawyer, Maximiliano Rusconi, said the former president planned to appeal what he called the "arbitrary" ruling, with the goal of bringing the matter to the country's supreme court.

Ten other defendants were also convicted Friday, including a former army colonel turned arms trafficker.

Specifically, Menem was convicted of "aggravated smuggling," regarded as a graver offence because the crime involved war materiel and was carried out by government officials, according to the verdict, seen by AFP.

Sentencing will be done by the lower court that first acquitted Menem. Aggravated smuggling carries a sentence of between four and 12 years in jail.

The charges related to three decrees the Peronist former president signed for shipments made in the early 1990s.

Menem has admitted signing the decrees, but insisted the transactions were legal because the weapons -- rifles, artillery, mortars, anti-tank rockets and ammunition -- were being sent to countries at peace.

The weapons were labeled as being destined for Panama and Venezuela, but this was ultimately deemed a maneuver to dodge weapons embargoes then in force against Croatia and Ecuador.

Menem is now a senator and thus in theory has immunity from imprisonment. But he could be incarcerated after his term ends in 2014, or if lawmakers strip him of this legal shield.

Weapons were sent to Croatia in seven shipments aboard freighters between 1991 and 1995. At the time, much of the Balkans was under a UN arms embargo following the break up of Yugoslavia.

More arms were sent to Ecuador aboard three flights in February 1995.

At the time, Ecuador was engaged in a border war with Peru, and Argentina was banned from selling weapons to either side as one of the guarantors of a peace agreement the two nations signed ending an earlier war in 1942.

A two-term president, Menem was once wildly popular, and his fondness for fast cars and tall women half his age amused rather than angered Argentines.

But his popularity faded as corruption scandals emerged, his tough free-market policies alienated his electorate and the economy deteriorated.

He was also president at the time Argentina was hit by its worst terror strikes, on local Jewish targets.

In 1992, the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires was leveled in a bombing that killed 22 people and wounded 200.

Two years later a car bombing at a building housing Jewish charities killed 85 people and injured 300 others in Buenos Aires. No one has been convicted.

Menem's government was widely criticized for its handling of the subsequent investigations. Buenos Aires accuses Iran of having masterminded the 1994 attack and of using the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to execute it.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130308/argentine-ex-president-menem-convicted-arms-smuggling-0