Former president Mauricio Macri was on Wednesday charged with ordering the illegal surveillance of the families of the 44 crew-members who died in the 2017 ARA San Juan submarine tragedy.
Judge Martín Bava issued an indictment against the opposition leader for "the offence of carrying out prohibited intelligence actions," according to a 174-page court ruling.
Macri is also charged with "creating conditions for data of persons to be collected, stored and used."
In a preliminary court appearance last month, the former president submitted a written statement in which he insisted: "I did not spy on anyone, I never ordered [anyone] in my government to spy on anyone."
Reacting to the news, he denounced the charges and Judge Bava, telling reporters during a visit to Chile: "I have said all along that this was political persecution that would end this way."
The ARA San Juan disappeared in November 2017. When it was found just over a year later, it was at a depth of more than 900 metres in a desolate area of the South Atlantic, some 460 kilometres southeast of the Patagonian city of Comodoro Rivadavia.
Everyone onboard died in the tragedy. The submarine had been crushed from an implosion apparently caused by a technical fault. Authorities eventually decided against attempting to refloat it.
The espionage case began with a criminal complaint by the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) Director Cristina Caamaño, who uncovered evidence indicating that relatives of the soldiers were spied on during the Macri administration’s time in office.
Family members of the sailors told investigators they were followed and wiretapped, filmed and intimidated into abandoning any claims related to the incident.
"The significance of the information gathered, the intention behind it, and the systematic nature of the documents analysed in this case allow us to state that this illegal intelligence was put together for one person: Mauricio Macri," Bava wrote in his ruling.
Macri is accused of ordering, allowing, organising and executing the "systematic carrying out of intelligence tasks expressly prohibited by law" between December 2017 and the end of 2018.
He could face a potential prison sentence of between three and ten years if he is found guilty of violating Argentina’s National Intelligence Law, although in this case aggravating circumstances could also be considered.
The former president was granted bail of 100 million pesos (about US$990,000) by the judge, but is banned from leaving the country, although he has previously been given permission to travel for his work with the FIFA Foundation.
Macri previously asked for the case to be thrown out on the grounds that the court did not have the authority to lift secrecy provisions on state intelligence to allow him to testify, but that request was rejected.
Leaders from Juntos por el Cambio expressed support for the opposition coalition’s leader, with City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta agreeing that the investigation is a case of “strong political persecution.” Macri "did not spy or send anyone to spy," he added.
PRO party leader Patricia Bullrich and Buenos Aires City deputy-elect María Eugenia Vidal also expressed “solidarity” with the former president.
The Casa Rosada refused to comment, saying the Presidency “does not comment on pending legal cases.”
Judge Bava has also ordered the prosecution of former Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) directors Gustavo Arribas and Silvia Majdalani, who reported to Macri, on charges they carried out “illegal espionage” on the relatives, who were desperate to know the fate of their loved ones.
Both Arribas and Majdalani deny the allegations against them.
So far, 12 people have been charged in connection with the case.