Friday, December 21, 2007

U.S. grand jury indicts 5 in Argentine "suitcase scandal"

South America: A followup on this story yesterday that has become a scandal in Argentine.

A U.S. grand jury indicted four Venezuelans and a Uruguayan on Thursday on charges of acting as unregistered foreign agents for Venezuela who allegedly tried to cover up a scheme to smuggle $800,000 in cash to Argentina.

The indictment formalizes charges brought last week when four of the five were arrested in connection with the case, which touched off corruption allegations in South America and diplomatic tensions between Washington and Buenos Aires.

U.S. prosecutors say the men represented the anti-U.S. government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and alleged in court that one of the defendants said the money was destined for the campaign of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who won Argentina's presidential election in October.

....The case has caused an uproar in Argentina. Chavez has accused Washington of seeking to undermine Argentine-Venezuelan relations, while Washington says its probe is not politically motivated.

Prosecutor Maria Luz Rivas Diez said a former Argentine government employee testified the man with the suitcase, Guido Antonini Wilson, visited Argentina's presidential palace two days after the money was confiscated.

"Apparently he was with other people at a sort of toast or celebration, while in another office an accord was being signed with Venezuela," Rivas Diez told Radio Del Plata.

Argentine government officials, who allowed Antonini to leave the country but now seek his extradition from the United States to question him about possible money laundering, did not immediately comment.

The case -- dubbed the "suitcase scandal" by Argentine media -- erupted after Antonini carried the cash on a private jet chartered by Argentina's government to ferry Argentine and Venezuelan officials from Caracas to Buenos Aires.

The government witness is a former secretary to an Argentine official who chartered the plane, Rivas Diez said. She was on the Caracas-Buenos Aires flight.

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