Vice President Cristina Kirchner is accused of fraudulently awarding public works contracts in her stronghold in Patagonia as president between 2007 and 2015

Buenos Aires (AFP) - An Argentine court on Tuesday found former president Cristina Kirchner guilty of corruption, sentencing her to six years in jail and banning her from holding public office for life in a move likely to infuriate her fervent supporters.

The current vice president – Argentina’s best known and most divisive politician – was declared guilty of “fraudulent administration” over irregular public works contracts awarded during her time as president between 2007 and 2015.

Prosecutors had demanded a 12-year prison sentence and lifetime ban from politics, which sparked massive protests in the capital Buenos Aires, during which a man tried to shoot Kirchner in a September assassination bid.

However, it is unlikely the 69-year-old will head to jail anytime soon, as she holds congressional immunity and still has several avenues for appeal.

Kirchner has been at the center of Argentine politics for two decades, drawing love and hatred in equal measure. She had said the trial was a political witchhunt and the result a foregone conclusion.

“Obviously, there will be a conviction,” she told the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo in an interview on Monday.

“The verdict will have a strong political impact,” said political analyst Rosendo Fraga of the University of Buenos Aires. However, if found guilty, “the chances of her being arrested for the sentence are non-existent.”

Kirchner was charged alongside 12 others for alleged involvement in the illicit attribution of public works contracts in the southern Santa Cruz province in favor of businessman Lazaro Baez.

The period investigated includes Kirchner’s eight years in office and the preceding four years when her late husband Nestor Kirchner, who died in 2010, was president.

The public prosecutor denounced what he called “a system of institutional corruption” and “probably the largest corruption operation” in the country, with “systematic irregularities in 51 calls for tenders” over 12 years.

Eight of Kirchner’s co-accused were found guilty and sentenced to between three and six and a half years in jail. Three were released and another had their case dismissed.

- Uncertain future -

Kirchner said the charges were a lie made up by her political enemies.

“This court has been a true firing squad,” the veteran politician said during her final address to the court, accusing prosecutors of having “dedicated themselves to disrespecting and insulting me.”

As vice president, Kirchner is head of the country’s Senate and enjoys immunity as a lawmaker. Argentina holds general elections in 2023, and it is unclear if she will seek public office while pursuing appeals to the sentence.

Fraga said potential appeals could take up to six years or more.

All eyes will be on potential protests after the verdict.

When prosecutors announced they were seeking a 12-year jail term in late August, mass daily demonstrations took place outside Kirchner’s apartment building in the upmarket suburb of Recoleta.

During one of these protests on September 1, a man shoved a revolver in her face and pulled the trigger – but the gun did not fire. Four people have been charged with involvement in the attack.

Several hundred Kirchner supporters gathered outside the courthouse before the verdict was read.