BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Former Argentine President Carlos Menem received a seven-year prison sentence for arms smuggling to Croatia and Ecuador in the 1990s, but he will not be jailed unless his fellow senators strip him of immunity, a court said on Thursday.
Menem, now a frail 82-year-old senator, was found guilty in March of being "co-author of the offense of aggravated contraband" in an appeals court decision that overturned a lower court's acquittal two years before.
He can appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. In the past, Menem has said he was "completely innocent" and had no idea the weapons shipments he authorized to Venezuela and Panama would be diverted to countries under arms embargoes.
Menem is a senator for his home province of La Rioja and cannot be jailed unless he is stripped of his privileges by two-thirds of the Senate.
The flamboyant former leader's 1989-1999 rule was characterized by free-market reforms and corruption scandals. Many of the privatizations he spearheaded were rolled back after the country suffered a catastrophic economic crisis in 2001 and 2002.
Menem has been charged with corruption in other cases, but this case marked his first conviction. Former Defense Minister Oscar Camilion was also found guilty and the court ordered on Thursday that he serve 5 1/2 years in prison.
Argentina was barred from supplying Ecuador with weapons because it played a peacekeeping role after Ecuador and Peru fought a brief war in 1995. Arms sales to Croatia were internationally banned during the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995.
In a 2001 interview with Reuters, Menem's brother Eduardo Menem blamed the former president's arrest for arms trafficking on rivals who wanted to "wipe him off the political map."
(Reporting by Alejandro Lifschitz and Guido Nejamkis; Writing by Hilary Burke; Editing by Peter Cooney)