Ex-Argentine President Indicted

Former Argentine President Carlos Menem was indicted by a federal judge on Wednesday, accused of heading an "illicit organization" that illegally funneled weapons to Croatia and Ecuador during the 1990s.

In a 600-page indictment, Federal Judge Jorge Urso ordered Menem to remain in police custody, froze $3 million of his assets, and restricted visits to a minimum at the Buenos Aires villa where the former president is being held.

Menem, who was president from 1989 to 1999, was placed under house arrest on June 7 after Urso ordered him held in connection with the arms trafficking case.

In the indictment, Urso ordered Menem be tried for allegedly diverting 6,500 tons of weapons that were officially destined for Panama and Venezuela.

The shipments — to Croatia in 1991 and Ecuador in 1995 — allegedly occurred while those countries were under international arms embargoes. Ecuador and Peru waged a brief border war in the 1990s, and the embargo against Croatia stemmed from fighting in the former Yugoslavia.

Also Wednesday, two former top Menem advisers were charged: Antonio Erman Gonzalez, a former defense minister under Menem; and former army chief of staff Martin Balza, both on accusations of being involved in the alleged arms ring.

The indictment accused Menem of operating "from the shadows" and undertaking a leading role in an "illicit association" that sought to profit from the arms sales. The sales were ordered by Menem and several high-ranking officials.

If convicted, Menem could be sentenced to between five and 10 years in prison. The 71-year-old former president has repeatedly declared his innocence in the case, calling the sales "absolutely legal."

His lawyers promised to fight all the way up to the Supreme Court to clear Menem.

Menem had no immediate comment, but his brother, Sen. Eduardo Menem, called the indictment politically motivated. "There are special interests, political interests ... and others behind this," he said.

Urso, however, told reporters he had "sufficient proof" showing that Menem was responsible for the sales.

Charges of rampant corruption in his administration have dogged Menem since he stepped down in December 1999 after serving two consecutive terms. Several of his former Cabinet officials are embroiled in corruption cases, but this is the first directly involving Menem.

The flamboyant former president, who only two months ago married a former Miss Universe, had openly talked about making a third run for president in 2003. Until a month ago, he was the head of the opposition Peronist party and wielded considerable influence.

During his 10 years in power, Menem oversaw the transformation of an economy rocked by hyperinflation into one of the world's leading emerging markets. In the mid-1990s, his government imposed sweeping free-market reforms, toppled trade barriers and sold off hundreds of state companies. It also stabilized Argentina's currency.

Menem has been sequesered in a lavish Spanish-style mansion in the Buenos Aires suburbs. On Monday, dozens of Menem well-wishers turned up outside the suburban compound in a show of support on Menem's 71st birthday. Many raised signs demanding his release.

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