The first of a series of criminal trials against former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is on the verge of being suspended after Argentina's Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in favour of a demand by her defence team.
The court pursuing the trial, which was scheduled to begin on May 21, must now send its casefile to the Supreme Court "urgently" so Justices can determine if the investigation is lacking sufficient evidence to try Fernández de Kirchner, the Court determined.
The decision bears the signatures of Justices Ricardo Lorenzetti, Horacio Rosatti, Juan Carlos Maqueda and Elena Highton, who voted in favour of the motion. Chief Justice Carlos Rosenkrantz did not sign it.
Hearings were due to begin next Tuesday, but the justices now want to determine if sufficient evidence exists and whether parts of it are missing, as argued by lawyers for the former head of state.
Without the Supreme Court's agreement, the case focusing on alleged embezzlement of funds destined for road works projects cannot progress to the trial stage.
The decision prompted an immediate wave of criticism from the Mauricio Macri government, its officials and allies.
"This is a very unusual ruling", said Justice Minister Germán Garavano, speaking to Radio Mitre. "It has a very strong political ingredient. It is a very simple decision from the Court."
He charged: "What is worrying is that this impedes a trial and that our Judiciary has a tendency toward never reaching trial stage. This is one of its biggest deficits."
The Justice minister described the ruling, coming just one week before the trial was due to begin, as "strange, to say the least."
"Evidently, politics has too much influence over the Judiciary," he alleged.
For his part, Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña said the decision "prompts anger in society because there is a strong demand for justice to be served."
"I do not offer opinions as to the motivation of the Court but it does leave a feeling among many people that impunity is possible," he told La Red radio.
Anti-Corruption Office (AI) chief Laura Alonso said the ruling "smelled of Alberto Fernández," a reference to Fernández de Kirchner's former Cabinet Chief.
"We hope the trial begins next week because there are no grounds for it not to," Alonso said.
The Anti-Corruption Office is a plaintiff in the case.
The so-called "Vialidad" (Road Works) cases centres on alleged irregularities in the granting of tenders for five public works projects in Santa Cruz province to businessman Lázaro Báez's Grupo Austral firm. The case is emblematic, not only because it was to be the first to put Fernández de Kirchner in the dock, but also because it was the first to produce enough evidence to lead to corruption charges against the senator.
Fernández de Kirchner stands accused of embezzlement. Among the total 16 defendants are Báez, an alleged frontman for the Kirchner family; jailed former federal planning minister Julio de Vido, and his former secretary for public works, José López.
Of the initial 51 public works projects that were looked at, prosecutors decided to address criminal charges related to just five. Báez's firms received contracts and associated funds but did not carry out the works completely or on time, prosecutors argued.
The Supreme Court's latest ruling relates to a claim from the former president's lawyers reacting to reports that a full audit of the selected five projects has yet to be completed. According to estimates, this procedure may not end until August.
The charges against Fernández de Kirchner stem from testimony given under the framework of a plea bargain deal with Leonardo Fariña, the alleged "delivery boy" in a money-laundering scheme tied to some of the Kirchner family businesses. Fariña has been tied to an alleged network of extortioners operating deep within Argentina's Judiciary, claims which Federal Judge Alejo Ramos Padilla is investigating.
Fariña's former lawyer told Ramos Padilla in testimony that the country's intelligence agency instructed his client to testify against Fernández de Kirchner, claims the accused himself later denied.
Fernández de Kirchner participated Tuesday in a meeting focused on uniting Peronist leaders in a joint electoral ticket to face President Mauricio Macri in the October elections. To date, she has not confirmed or denied her intention to run against Macri.