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Argentina: Former President Freed from House Arrest - 2001-11-21


A ruling by an Argentine high court Tuesday has freed former president Carlos Menem from house arrest for his suspected involvement in illegal arms sales to Ecuador and Croatia in the early 1990s. Mr.Menem's release comes at a crucial time for the Peronist Party he once dominated.

Reportedly bearing no grudges after more than five months of house arrest, former Argentine president Carlos Menem said he would now dedicate himself to helping his economically battered nation while keeping an eye on the 2003 presidential race.

The 71-year old Mr. Menem regained his freedom after a whirlwind day which began Tuesday morning when the Argentine Supreme Court dismissed charges against one of his former aides,Emir Yoma. Mr. Yoma, the brother of Mr. Menem's ex-wife, had appealed on grounds that the charge of an "illicit association" was unsubstantiated.

By late Tuesday afternoon a separate Federal Court issued a ruling freeing both men.

Mr. Menem, Mr. Yoma and several other former top functionaries have been detained for their supposed involvement in an arms scandal dating back to the early 1990s. At that time, despite standing agreements not to sell arms to either country, Argentina sold more than six-thousand tons of weapons and gunpowder to Ecuador and Croatia.

Argentine Justice Department has been investigating the illicit association that masterminded the arms deal for several years. But the Supreme Court said lower court judges had misinterpreted the penal code. It also harshly criticized the investigating judge and attorney for making legal decisions under political pressure.

The Supreme Court also issued a more general critique of Argentine lower court judges saying they are prone to handing out politically popular decisions that are not fundamentally sound forcing the Supreme Court to overthrow the decisions and rack up an unnecessary political cost.

Mr. Menem's supporters, camped outside the luxurious weekend home where the ex-president has been serving his house arrest, greeted the court's decision with cheers and drum banging.

Argentine President Fernando De la Rua said the decision demonstrated the independence of the country's judicial system and criticized those who said his administration was behind Mr. Menem's legal woes.

Mr. Menem's release comes at a crucial time for his Peronist Party as it positions itself for October 2003 presidential elections. The former President has said he wants to run for a third term.

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