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Page last updated at 14:01 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 15:01 UK

Menem arms-smuggling trial opens

President Carlos Menem in 1999
Mr Menem insists the arms shipments were legal

The trial of former Argentine president Carlos Menem on arms-trafficking charges has opened, but without the accused present.

Mr Menem's lawyers said the 78-year-old ex-leader would not attend court in Buenos Aires because of ill health.

He is charged with involvement in the illegal sale of weapons to Croatia and Ecuador in the 1990s while both countries were engaged in wars.

Mr Menem, who governed Argentina from 1989 to 1999, denies the charges.

He, along with 17 others, is accused of authorising the sale of weapons, including rifles, anti-tank rockets and ammunition, to Croatia and Ecuador between 1991 and 1995.

At the time, Croatia was under a UN arms embargo because of its involvement in the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia, while in 1995 Ecuador was involved in a month-long conflict with neighbouring Peru.

Mr Menem has said he signed the decrees authorising the shipments but maintains they were legal as they were destined for Panama and Venezuela, which were both at peace.

Evidence about the true destinations first came to light in 1995.

Immunity

In 2001, Mr Menem spent several months under house arrest on similar charges, but he was set free by a panel of judges, most appointed during his presidency.

The case against him was filed again after President Nestor Kirchner, who was in office between 2003 and 2007, replaced all the judges.

If found guilty, Mr Menem could technically face a sentence of up to 12 years in prison.

However, as a serving senator - he represents the western province of La Rioja - Mr Menem is immune from imprisonment.

Prosecutors would either have to wait until his term in office expires, in 2014, or ask the Senate to pass a special motion to put him behind bars, the BBC's Daniel Schweimler in Buenos Aires says.

Mr Menem insists he is the victim of a political campaign by current President Cristina Fernandez, wife of former President Kirchner.




SEE ALSO
Menem probed over 1995 explosion
16 Aug 08 |  Americas
Menem charged with weapons sales
08 Sep 07 |  Americas
How arms scandal emerged
07 Jun 01 |  Americas
Profile: Carlos Menem
28 Apr 03 |  Americas
Country profile: Argentina
01 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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