By MICHAEL WARREN, Associated Press
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Former Argentine President Carlos Menem was sentenced to seven years in prison on Thursday for illegally smuggling weapons to Ecuador and Croatia in violation of international embargoes in the 1990s.
The court also banned Menem, now a senator, from holding elective office, and asked the Senate to vote to remove the immunity he enjoys as an elected member of Congress.
The sentence is final unless overturned by the Supreme Court, but it's unclear whether senators will vote him out of office. Menem's leadership of Argentina in the 1990s is frequently criticized by President Cristina Fernandez, but as senator he has provided a reliable swing vote on critical issues, and the current president's allies control the Senate.
Given his advanced age, 82, Menem would likely serve his sentence at home.
An appeals court found Menem and 11 others guilty in March, overturning his earlier acquittal at trial in 2011. The 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, who served two terms as president from 1989 to 1999, 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.
Menem was determined to be a "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 judges settled on seven years, taking into account the former president's age and conduct as well as the aggravating circumstances.
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