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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 May, 2004, 03:19 GMT 04:19 UK
Wanted Menem protests innocence

By Elliott Gotkine
BBC South America correspondent

An Argentine judge has issued an international arrest warrant for the country's former President, Carlos Menem, on allegations of tax fraud.

It was the second time in a week that Mr Menem had been subject to such an order.

In an interview with the BBC held in his wife's home in Chile, Mr Menem again denied the charges, though he revealed that once extradition proceedings are initiated, he will return to Argentina voluntarily, rather than wait to be arrested.

Carlos Menem at his wife's home in Chile, April 2004
Carlos Menem: Exudes confidence
Mr Menem, now 73, lives in a luxury apartment in Santiago, courtesy of his statuesque ex-Miss Universe wife, Cecilia Bolocco, a woman almost half his age and nearly twice his height.

A life-size oil painting of Mrs Menem beams out from one of the reception rooms in her cavernous home, which is where my interview with her husband took place.

Dapper in his petrol-blue Armani suit, Mr Menem's trademark, luxuriant, grey hair and white, fluffy sideburns have long-since been replaced by the neat, back-and-sides of an elder statesman.

He looks far more relaxed than a man facing two extradition requests should do, and he exudes confidence.

His governments were tainted with allegations of rampant corruption.

And Mr Menem admits there may have been some people in his government on the take. But if there were, he says, he was not aware of any.

Menem defiant

As for the accusations against him, Mr Menem continues to maintain his innocence at what he sees as trumped-up charges by an Argentine government hell-bent on his political annihilation.

The apartment block where Carlos Menem is staying, April 2004
Mr Menem is staying with his wife in this apartment block
Yet this entire mess could have been avoided if he had simply appeared in court for questioning. So why didn't he?

"I have no kind of [legal] guarantee," he says, perched on an elaborately-embroidered armchair in his wife's living room.

Mr Menem was allegedly involved in the embezzlement of tens of millions of dollars during the building of two prisons.

He is also facing investigation into undeclared funds held in Swiss bank accounts, and charges of arms trafficking to Ecuador and Croatia during his time in office.

If Chile's Supreme Court agrees to Argentina's extradition request, Mr Menem says he will not let himself suffer the indignity of being sent back to Argentina by force.

Instead, he plans to slip back to Buenos Aires of his own accord, before anyone has a chance to arrest him.

Exile

Mr Menem is convinced that he was cheated out of a third term in office during last year's presidential election.

Carlos Menem with his wife Cecilia and newborn son in November 2003
Mr Menem with his wife and son
That is despite opinion polls at the time suggesting he would have been trounced by Nestor Kirchner - now president - had the septuagenarian former president not pulled out of the second round of the elections.

Mr Menem is in no doubt that if the will of his adoring people had been respected, he would now be living it up in Argentina's pink presidential palace, rather than in self-imposed exile in Santiago.

"What's more," says Mr Menem, as he continues his diatribe against President Kirchner - a man he describes as authoritarian and whom he likens to Fidel Castro - "They're frightened; frightened of what might happen in the not-too-distant future, for the [Congressional] Elections in 2005 and the above all the [Presidential] Elections in 2007...

"They keep investigating me because they want to prejudice me politically."

Evidence, he says, is the allegation that he not only failed to declare the money in his Swiss bank account to the Argentine tax authorities, but that the account was used to launder money.

"That is defamation," says Mr Menem.

"That sum of money I earned in a legal action for the five years I was imprisoned by the military dictatorship. I won almost $200,000 and I deposited it there in 1986. Now, with the interest, I think it's close to $500,000 or $600,000."

To reach $600,000 after 18 years would mean annual interest of over 6%. Not bad. But in any event, Mr Menem says that the money was set aside for his then wife and children.

As for the former president himself, who is forced to get by on a monthly stipend of $10,000 sent from his Argentine law practice, he told the BBC he is only worth around two million pesos ($700,000).

But there is no need to pity him too much.

"I have a beautiful lady for my wife, who was Miss Universe [in 1987]. I have a divine son, and a really great grandson. He's very cute. So I'm well and I live well. I live well."


SEE ALSO:
New arrest warrant out for Menem
26 Apr 04  |  Americas
Warrant out for ex-Argentine head
20 Apr 04  |  Americas
Menem charged over Swiss account
20 Dec 03  |  Americas
Menem arms charges dropped
28 Aug 03  |  Americas
Menem protests his innocence
06 Jun 01  |  Americas
Profile: Carlos Menem
28 Apr 03  |  Americas



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