Argentina's Cristina Fernandez starts graft trial she blasts as 'smokescreen'

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina’s populist ex-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner passed through a crowd of ardent supporters and into a Buenos Aires courthouse on Tuesday to undergo a graft trial she derided as a “smokescreen,” days after kicking off her campaign for vice president on social media.

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Sitting for the first time in the dock of accused, Fernandez faced charges of corruption. Now a senator with a significant following, she reportedly entered the courthouse while being shielded from journalists by crowds of supporters who formed a “human wall.”

She listened to the accusations against her while sitting with her lawyer in the last row, a glass wall separating her from spectators packed into the room behind her.

The trial, which could last as long as a year, will address multiple corruption allegations dating from Fernandez’s two terms as president from 2007 to 2015. These include accusations she received kickbacks from construction firms that got lucrative sweetheart deals on projects.

Hours before she appeared in court, Fernandez slammed the trial as a political “smokescreen” aimed at hurting her campaign for vice president in national elections this year.

Fernandez, who strongly denies all the allegations, fired retorts on Twitter at her accusers and rival President Mauricio Macri.

“Clearly it’s not about justice,” she tweeted. “Just about creating a new smokescreen that aims to distract Argentines and Argentina - increasingly less successfully - from the dramatic situation our country and our people live.”

The recession-hit South American nation is heading for presidential elections in October, with center-right Macri coming under pressure from high inflation, a weak local peso currency and job losses starting to mount.

The allegations could cast a shadow over Fernandez’s political push as she looks to win over the more moderate wing of the Peronist opposition to take on Macri in elections set for October.

Fernandez shocked the nation on Saturday by saying she would run for vice president alongside unrelated former cabinet chief Alberto Fernandez, a veteran political operator who has both backed and criticized her in the past.

A leftist and militant Peronist, Cristina Fernandez had been seen as the top potential challenger to Macri.

In another tweet she said the trial was an “act of persecution” with the aim of putting an opposition candidate in the dock during an election campaign.

The charges against her could end in a sentence of up to 10 years in jail, should she be found guilty of leading a graft ring that defrauded the state of millions of dollars.

As a sitting senator, she currently has immunity from arrest, however.

Reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Tom Brown, Bill Trott and David Gregorio