Carlos Menem held on arms trafficking charges

Carlos Menem, Argentina's flamboyant former President, was arrested yesterday for illegal arms trafficking during his administration and now faces a 10-year jail sentence if found guilty.

Mr Menem, 70, had been summoned to a Buenos Aires court to testify before a federal judge about his alleged role in a decade old arms conspiracy and has yet to be interrogated over all aspects of the case. His lawyers are expected to request house arrest for the newly-wed septuagenarian, in accordance with Argentine law for pensioners under trial.

Three of Mr Menem's closest aides are being held on suspicion of breaking international bans and organising the sale of weapons and munitions to Croatia and Ecuador in the early 1990s. Investigators allege that Mr Menem and his aides rerouted 6,500 tons of weapons which were officially destined for Panama and Venezuela, but instead ended up in Croatia and Ecuador.

Mr Menem vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and insists that in his conduct "there was nothing against the law".

"I am absolutely innocent," Menem insisted, adding he wanted "to end once and for all, all of the rumours that have nothing to do with reality."

Mr Menem, accompanied by his new wife, arrived by helicopter in the capital, only to be whisked to Judge Jorge Urso's courtroom, where the former president was detained.

Mr Menem is the first Argentine head of state to be arrested. Early in his ten year presidency, Mr Menem granted former leaders immunity from prosecution for atrocities during the Dirty War against dissidents and provoked criticism. The immunity apparently does not extend to him. Yesterday's surprise arrest provoked weeping among a vocal crowd of supporters who gathered outside the courtroom. Earlier this week, Mr Menem had been denied leave to honeymoon in Syria with his glamourous young bride, Cecilia Bolocca, a former Miss Universe. But the legal move against the once-powerful politician has come as a shock to Buenos Aires society.

A nephew branded the arrest "political persecution" and predicted that Mr Menem's name would soon be cleared. The Peronist politician aspires to run again for the presidency in 2003, although he had been dodging the arms scandal since he left office three years back. His former brother-in-law, Emir Yoma, his defence minister, Erman Gonzalez, and the former commander in chief of the Army General Martin Balza have all been detained in connection with the illicit weapons deals and are awaiting trial in a federal court.

Argentine President Fernando de la Rua said that the arrest of his predecessor was a dramatic event but would not destabilise the country.

"But in no way does this mean ... that our politicians or institutions will stop working," Mr De la Rua said. "It shows that the courts' independence is respected in our country."

De la Rua's unpopular center-left Alliance government must routinely deal with Mr Menem's now-opposition Peronist Party, which controls the Senate and runs most of the country's provincial governments.

A recent opinion poll suggested that more than 60 per cent of Argentines considered the former president guilty, but most doubted he ever would be prosecuted. The recent arrests of aides had given rise to speculation that Menem could not dodge the law indefinitely. A showy second wedding ceremony in Rioja, his home province, last month had drawn a new bout of international media attention to the outgoing Peronist.

His ex-wife Zulema, who was kicked out of the presidential residence in front of television cameras in 1990, now accuses Menem of a cover-up in the death of their son Carlitos in 1995. He died when the helicopter he was piloting crashed in mysterious circumstances and she has testified it was linked to the weapons scandal, though the link is unclear.

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