Argentine senate to vote on Kirchner immunity

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Photo released by Noticias Argentinas of former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner (R) at a special session of the Senate in Buenos Aires on August 22, 2018

Argentine lawmakers are to vote Wednesday on whether to allow investigators to search the homes of former president Cristina Kirchner as part of the so-called corruption notebooks case.

Claudio Bonadio, the judge leading the investigation, has petitioned the Senate to partially lift Kirchner's immunity to allow several of her residences to be searched.

As a senator, Kirchner enjoys congressional immunity from imprisonment, though not prosecution.

The 65-year-old is facing trial in several other corruption cases and has accused Bonadio of carrying out "judicial persecutions" aimed at derailing a possible run for the presidency next year.

Senators began debating Bonadio's request in the early afternoon, with Kirchner and most other Senators present.

Last week, the senate was unable to muster a quorum to debate the request.

This time however, senators appeared to be leaning towards favoring the magistrate's request, with Kirchner herself giving an indication she would bow to the seemingly inevitable.

She told lawmakers in a letter that she was willing to allow searches of her homes in Buenos Aires, Santa Cruz and El Calafate on condition that they did not allow the searches to be filmed or photographed.

- Time to 'repair damage' -

Eduardo Costa, from President Mauricio Macri's center-right Cambiemos coalition, said he would vote in favor of Bonadio's request to allow him to move ahead with the case.

It was time "to repair the damage that corruption and officials do to the Argentine people," Costa said.

Ana Almiron of Kirchner's Front for Victory party questioned "the purpose and the need for the search".

"They are trying to cover up the truth of what's happening in Argentina," she said, alluding to an economic crisis that has forced Macri to agree a $50 billion IMF loan.

Thousands of people demonstrated outside the Congress building in Buenos Aires late Tuesday, demanding that Senators authorize the searches.

"Prison for Cristina!" protesters shouted, and also "Give back the money!"

As the Senate debated on Wednesday, a handful of her supporters awaited the decision outside, waving pro-Kirchner banners. Another small group demonstrated nearby, demanding lawmakers end her immunity.

- Driver's notebooks -

More than a dozen elite businessmen and former government officials were arrested after La Nacion newspaper reported on August 1 that millions in bribes were delivered by a ministerial chauffeur to Kirchner's residences, both during her presidency and that of her late husband Nestor.

The driver's meticulous records of the cash deliveries -- allegedly payments from business leaders in exchange for public works contracts -- form the basis of Bonadio's investigation.

According to driver Oscar Centeno's bombshell evidence, the Kirchners' residence in Buenos Aires was the venue for the handover of millions of dollars in cash, with others taking place at the Casa Rosada government headquarters and the Olivos official presidential residence.

Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli has said a total of $160 million in bribes was handed over during a 10-year period from 2005-15.

Kirchner is being investigated in five other cases, ranging from alleged foreign exchange manipulation to the signing of a memorandum with Tehran that Bonadio argues effectively protected Iranian suspects in the deadly 1994 bombing of Argentine Jewish centers.

Still one of Argentina's most popular politicians, Kirchner said last week she was victim of a right-wing effort across Latin America to discredit the work of previous leftist governments "that expanded rights and allowed millions of people out of poverty during the first decaded and a half of the 21st Century."