Arms scandal ends honeymoon for Argentina's former leader

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The Independent US

For Carlos Menem, Argentina's former president whose ostentatious spending was long suspected of being tied to corruption, the honeymoon is definitely over. Now under house arrest for illicit arms deals, he allegedly masterminded during his 10 years in power, the cocky 70-year-old Peronist had to call off his post-wedding trip with a beauty queen half his age because of worries that he might seek exile in Syria, which has no extradition treaty. He is being held under armed guard at the suburban mansion of a wealthy friend, Armando Gostanian, who used to head the national mint. His daughter, feuding with her stepmother, won't let him in the family estate.

Mr Menem was arrested in a Buenos Aires court on Thursday when he refused to be interrogated over the re-routing of weapons to Croatia in 1991, in violation of a UN arms embargo to the Balkans, then selling arms to Ecuador in 1995 while mediating in its border war with Peru. The opposition politician maintains that he is "absolutely innocent" and that charges are based on a "sinister web ... of lies."

When Judge Jorge Urso read out the accusations, Mr Menem is reported to have looked incredulous. "Me? The head of gang?" he whimpered.

If found guilty of the $100m international arms conspiracy, the former tango partner of the late Diana, Princess of Wales and a golfing buddy of George Bush Sr faces up to 10 years behind bars. Three of his closest associates recently were hauled in on charges of diverting the 6575 tons of weaponry from Panama and Venezuela to more profitable recipients that were banned from obtaining Argentine arms. After his former brother-in-law, Emir Yoma, former defence minister, Erman Gonzalez, and former army chief, General Martin Balza, were all arrested for running weapons, the fall of Carlos Saul Menem was only a matter of time.

Mr Menem left a courtroom just two weeks earlier as a grinning bridegroom, with the lissome former Miss Universe, Cecilia Bolocco, on his arm, but this time he emerged as a federal prisoner. Yet the self-described "political animal", who had reconciled with Britain after the Falklands war and pardoned the junta for atrocities during the "dirty war" against leftists, was unbowed. He quoted tango lyrics and rhetoric from the South American liberator, Simon Bolivar, to hundreds of Peronist supporters who had been bussed in from the provinces to wait for their political hero on the courthouse steps. He felt insulted when officials assumed he, a former statesman, would go on the run. "I fear only God," he'd remarked on the way in.

Mr Menem has planned to run for the presidency in 2003, after a five year hiatus from office, as required by the constitution. Climbing into a helicopter with his wife beside him, his departure was more fitting to a candidate in mid-campaign than a disgraced head of state waiting for trial.

Mr Menem is the first elected president ever to be put under arrest in democratic Argentina.