Former federal judge Norberto Oyarbide died on Wednesday (September 1) at the age of 70 as a consequence of Covid-19. He had spent several weeks in hospital battling a double pneumonia produced by the novel coronavirus.
Soon after entering the Instituto Argentino del Diagnóstico y Tratamiento (IADT) hospital in the Recoleta neighbourhood in early July, Oyarbie was intubated.
Among his entourage, it is believed the retired judge caught the virus at his 70th birthday party last June 22, which he celebrated by lunching with friends.
Oyarbide will be remembered as one of Argentina’s most notorious judges of recent decades. Never afraid of the camera, he often went before television cameras to discuss his politically loaded cases, including corruption charges and investigations against former presidents Carlos Menem, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner and Mauricio Macri, as well as various senior officials of their respective governments.
Yet no judge in Argentine history was more denounced than Oyarbide, who had 43 impeachment requests filed against him over the years. He always escaped unscathed, hanging on at the Comodoro Py federal courthouse, outlasting all governments with a suspicious audacity.
When the end at last seemed nigh during the administration of former president Mauricio Macri, he managed to negotiate himself a pension.
In over 20 years of magistracy, Oyarbide was involved in many cases of political and public relevance, but his questionable decisions branded him as an icon of scandalous Argentine federal justice. Many took odds with decisions that favoured Kirchnerism and its leaders.
Over and above, his eccentric personality and ostentation of wealth (he was denounced for illegal enrichment) led him to become one of the most questioned judges at Comodoro Py.
The judge was accustomed to dining every night in the “Mirasol Campo & Mar” restaurant in Puerto Madero, where he had a table reserved. For years he could be seen there accompanied by his former boyfriend Claudio Blanco and by businessmen, celebrities and politicians. Larger than life, he once drunkenly joined singer La "Mona" Jiménez onstage for a song.
In late 2011, Oyarbide began to come out of the closet as a homosexual, though it was something of an open secret. The first time he raised the subject was in an interview with the newspaper La Nación where he said that he was at peace with himself and that his partner was an “admirable being.” Some months later, in early 2012, the first photos of the judge with Blanco started appearing. He would claim later on in life that his sexuality had stopped his advancement further in judicial circles.
The judge was never far from the headlines. Earlier this century, he delivered a ruling overturning house arrest for the late military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in 2005, and also the resolution defining the criminal activities of the Triple A right-wing Peronist grouping as crimes against humanity.
His greatest moment of fame, however, arrived in 2009 when he acquitted then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, for presumed illegal enrichment.
Eventually, he would be forced to resign. The case that finally put the lid on his judicial career was the decision to halt a raid on a financial house at the request of Carlos Liuzzi, the second-in-command of then Legal and Technical secretary Carlos Zannini during the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidency.
In 2016, yet another impeachment request was filed after he admitted to having halted a raid on a financial house at the request of a Kirchnerite official. That April, after 21 years on the bench and under fierce pressure from the Cambiemos government, with proceedings to remove him underway in the Magistrates Council, the moment had arrived.
Then-president Mauricio Macri approved his resignation, permitting him to collect a privileged pension as a member of the Judiciary.
"Macri could not buy me off because I’m not quoted on the Stock Exchange, but he tried directly,” Oyarbide claimed later, after the event.
Born in Concepción del Uruguay (Entre Ríos), Norberto Mario Oyarbide joined the Judiciary in mid-1976 as a court secretary. After advancing to prosecutor was named as a federal judge in the City of Buenos Aires in 1994 under Carlos Menem's government.
In 21 years of magistracy, Oyarbide drew heavy media coverage for his links to important cases involving public officials, as well as scandals leading to impeachment requests.
Among other cases falling in his jurisdiction, he investigated and acquitted Menem for omitting to declare a Swiss account (2001). Néstor Kirchner was cleared following a probe into a 158 percent increase in his fortune in 2009, a case that also ended in acquittal for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on illegal enrichment charges. Oyarbide also played an important role in the Skanska case (2005).
The federal judge also pronounced against then-Central Bank Governor Martín Redrado on malfeasance charges (2010) and sent then-Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri to trial in 2009 on accusations of telephone espionage. The intervention of federal judge Sebastián Castanello finally saved Macri from going on trial.
Only a few years after becoming a federal judge, Oyarbide was on the brink of being removed from the bench due to the scandal over his visits to a male brothel called Spartacus. Following the release of a video showing intimate scenes between the magistrate and a man there, a Chamber of Deputies committee headed by current Civic Coalition leader Elisa Carrió pressed for his removal, alleging illegal enrichment among other crimes. The pressure continued for three years but on September 11, 2001 (the same day the Twin Towers were being destroyed in Manhattan) the Senate closed all impeachment proceedings against the judge.
In almost every interview he gave, Oyarbide named his mother. More than once, he said that she was the person whom he loved more than anybody in the world. He lived with her until she died in 2007.
Journalist and political analyst Jorge Asís on Wednesday described the late magistrate as "a kind of Oscar Wilde of the justice system." Oyarbide was a "transgressor," he said.
"I cannot assess him objectively because he was my café friend, we hung around the same places and sometimes I worked as a journalist with him. [He had] Great technical capacity, recognised by all who worked with him," Asís told Luis Novaresio, speaking on the A24 news channel.
The writer recognised that the magistrate was "controversial in some of his conduct," recalling in particular his confrontations with Macri, whom he sent to trial for presumed illegal wiretapping.
Asís also narrated an alleged episode in which Macri "went to meet Oyarbide by surprise in a spa, the notorious Colmegna, almost as if to confront him. Afterwards Mauricio recognised that as an error," he claimed.
"A man who celebrates his birthdays in Colmegna with all his friends draped in towels, with champagne and cake, that’s what I call a picturesque personality.
"His error was when he turned 70. Instead of having one big party, because he couldn’t, he organised a series of meals," said Asís, explaining that the magistrate was surely infected at one of those meals.