Judge Who Pushed Graft Cases Against Ex-President of Argentina Dies
BUENOS AIRES — A powerful federal judge in Argentina who handled a series of corruption cases against Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner died early Tuesday morning, injecting uncertainty into the country’s most politically-fraught prosecution.
Judge Claudio Bonadio, 64, died nine months after undergoing surgery for a brain tumor.
Judges in Argentina play a critical role in investigating accusations, giving them the sort of power prosecutors wield in the United States. Judge Bonadio had worked on cases against Mrs. Kirchner and people close to her with unusual zeal, and it was uncertain whether many of his cases would be pursued at a time when her political power is on the rise.
Reactions to his death underscored how polarizing he became over decades on a bench that has long been infamous for its opacity and its tendency to meddle in national politics.
In the hours after his death, the phrase “divine justice” was trending on Twitter in Argentina as allies of Mrs. Kirchner, who was president from 2007 to 2015, criticized the judge. Her political opponents, meanwhile, flooded social media timelines with praise for the judge, who was on the bench for 26 years.
Mrs. Kirchner and other powerful people who served in her government when she was president have long been dogged by accusations of graft, including claims of rigged public works contracts and bribery schemes. Her trial in one of the cases began last year, but there has yet to be a verdict.
The slew of criminal cases she faces called into question the viability of her presidential candidacy last year. Appearing to recognize that, Mrs. Kirchner asked Alberto Fernández, a less-polarizing figure from her Peronist political movement, to run at the top of the ticket and maintained a low profile as a vice-presidential candidate.
Mr. Fernández easily beat former President Mauricio Macri in October, paving the way for Mrs. Kirchner to return to power.
In one of his last actions before going on leave in January, Judge Bonadio ordered Mrs. Kirchner, and others, to stand trial over a supposed effort to skim money off public works contracts. The case stunned Argentines not only because more than 100 people were charged, but also because of evidence detailed in notebooks filled out by a driver who supposedly saw bags of cash being delivered around town.
Judge Bonadio issued several orders seeking to have Mrs. Kirchner detained before her trials started. Mrs. Kirchner avoided going to prison because her senate seat at the time gave her immunity.
Long before that case was filed, Judge Bonadio tried to arrest Mrs. Kirchner on treason and other charges relating to Iran’s alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina’s capital that killed 85 people.
Judge Bonadio also charged Mrs. Kirchner with corruption relating to purchases of liquefied natural gas and alleged that she led an effort to defraud the government through the dollar futures market. He also charged her, along with her son and daughter, with money laundering in connection to a family real estate company.
Judges in Argentina have a long history of aggressively going after certain politicians while turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of others, leading to accusations of political bias.
Mrs. Kirchner has argued that Judge Bonadio pursued baseless cases against her in an effort to keep her from returning to elected office. In her 2019 memoir, “Sincerely,” Mrs. Kirchner called Judge Bonadio “the hit man.” Months before stepping down from the presidency, Mrs. Kirchner characterized the judge as an “extortionist” and said he was part of a mafia.
The United for Change party, which is allied with the former president, Mr. Macri, and opposed to Mrs. Kirchner, issued a statement expressing hope that the cases Judge Bonadio oversaw would move forward despite his death.
Argentina’s justice system is notorious for shifting with the political winds and there has been widespread speculation that the cases against Mrs. Kirchner and her allies would grind to a halt now that she is back in power.
Corruption cases filed against past presidents and other powerful politicians have often dragged on for years and even decades without a resolution.
Several of the cases Judge Bonadio filed against Mrs. Kirchner had advanced unusually fast.