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ARGENTINA | 17-04-2021 08:53

Ex-Public Works secretary José López seeks release from jail

Former government official, who was found with millions of dollars and weapons in a bag outside a convent, seeks release after almost five years behind bars without a firm sentence.

Federal prosecutor Miguel Ángel Osorio on Tuesday approved the release of former Public Works secretary José López, upon payment of a million-dollar bail.

López, a former official for a 12-year period in the Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner governments, was jailed on embezzlement charges almost five years ago when he was discovered tossing bags containing almost US$9 million over a convent wall in mid-2016.

The ex-official’s defence lawyers had based their request on his six-year sentence still being under appeal while López, who has since turned whistleblower and is within a witness protection programme, has already spent 58 months behind bars (over two-thirds of his sentence).

The Tribunal Oral Federal 1 (TOF1) court must now rule whether or not it accedes to the prosecutor’s opinion approving the conditional release of this emblematic figure of corruption.

According to Article 317 of the Criminal Procedural Code, "when the accused has been remanded in custody for a period which would have permitted their conditional release if convicted, always when prison regulations have been observed," that release should be granted.

In that context, prosecutor Osorio valued the penitentiary report of December 22, 2020, saying that "the conduct demonstrated by the protected (witness) since being incorporated into this (witness protection) programme in August, 2018, was always cordial and respectful towards the personnel assigned to his custody."

The report also highlighted that "he heeded at every moment to the letter the indications of personnel as to security, collaborating actively in the maintenance and cleaning of both his own sector and those in common use."

Osorio considered the crime for which López was convicted is "extremely serious," compounded by his being a senior government official and his higher education (an engineering degree), "so that the sentence applied functions as retribution more than resocialisation, all of which motivated this prosecutor to rule negatively against other benefits solicited by the accused’s defence lawyers."

Despite this, the prosecutor bore in mind the length of time López has been detained without his conviction being confirmed, thus suggesting to the court a bail sufficient "to assure his continuation in this (legal) process and proportional to the gravity of the crime for which he was convicted."

The former Public Works secretary was arrested in the small hours of June 14, 2016, when he was detected following an emergency telephone call by a neighbour who had seen strange movements in a convent of General Rodríguez, to where López was carrying bags containing almost US$9 million.

As to the origin of the money López declared at the time that it "came from politics" and that what he was taking to the convent did not belong to him: "It has absolutely nothing to do with the evolution of my assets … and does not belong to me.” 

On this basis an embezzlement case in which he was previously investigated was reopened and suspicions mounted when he was found to be the owner of a luxurious residence in Dique Luján, Tigre, as well as a Federal Capital flat on Las Heras avenue. 

The prosecutor’s opinion failed to satisfy López, who said that he would appeal the ruling ordering his release upon payment of a bail of 85 million pesos, seeking instead to be paroled on his own cognisance as requested in the appeal filed by his official defence lawyer Pamela Bisserier.

The latter has 10 days to appeal the TOF1 ruling granting him release on bail, signed by judges Ricardo Basílico, Adrián Grunberg and José Michilini.

The Tucumán politician’s sentence was originally 90 months but reduced to six years by having him serve concurrently to the embezzlement a sentence for illegal possession of a military weapon (a machine-gun) which he toted while tossing the dollar-laden bags over the convent wall. 

Apart from the General Rodríguez convent case, López has been paroled on his own cognisance in the general case of public works fraud known as "cuadernos (copybooks)" where Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is a co-defendant and in the Sueños Compartidos housing scam, as well as four other cases.

López served as a government official from May 2003 to December 2015, departing office with Fernández de Kirchner.

 – TIMES with agencies

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