December 21, 2016 / 10:33 PM / 3 years ago

Tempers flare outside court over detained Argentine social leader

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Protesters and police clashed on Wednesday outside a courthouse in northern Argentina where a social activist is on trial for offences including corruption, while her lawyers asked the Supreme Court to free her on human rights grounds.

Fists flew as supporters of Milagro Sala, leader of the Tupac Amaru social welfare group in Jujuy province, tried to push past police who used choke holds to keep the crowd at bay.

It was part of a series of hearings on charges ranging from intimidation to corruption. She has denied the allegations and said she is a victim of political persecution.

Sala’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court in Buenos Aires to free her based on recommendations from United Nations and Organization of American States human rights committees that said she has been arbitrarily detained for nearly a year.

The case, and the international attention it has gathered, has been a headache for President Mauricio Macri as he tries to improve Argentina’s image and attract foreign investment needed to help pull the country out of recession.

Sala, whose organization is allied with Macri’s predecessor and political foe Cristina Fernandez, has long been accused by opponents of skimming public housing monies that she had received in cash under the previous Jujuy governor.

Soon after Macri ally Gerardo Morales became governor a year ago, he changed Jujuy’s welfare distribution system to tighten controls. Sala was protesting the change in January when she was arrested by provincial authorities and charged with sedition.

Rights groups branded this a violation of free speech and the sedition charge was quickly replaced by accusations of corruption. But Sala’s allies said the switch looked like a manoeuvre aimed simply at keeping her behind bars.

“Like everyone else, Milagro Sala should be prosecuted if she has committed serious crimes, but the Jujuy justice system must ensure that her basic due process guarantees are respected,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

Early this month, the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights called on Argentina to release Sala. The commission, part of the OAS, said Argentina should “give prompt attention” to recommendations from a U.N. body in October that called Sala’s pre-trial detention “unwarranted and arbitrary.”

The case threatens to dent Macri’s authority as one of the region’s chief critics of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whom he accuses of holding political prisoners.

Macri’s government has said the Sala case is a local one to be resolved in Jujuy. But if the Supreme Court rules that Sala’s initial detention was unlawful, it could turn up the pressure on Macri to find a solution.

Eduardo Tavani, coordinator of Sala’s legal committee told Reuters in a telephone interview that “the court will have to make a ruling on the arbitrary nature of Milagro’s detention.”

Leftist activists stopped rush hour traffic on Buenos Aires’ main avenue Nueve de Julio in a protest supporting Sala late Wednesday afternoon.

Macri fanned the controversy early this month when he said “the majority of Argentines” believe Sala should be tried for “a number of important crimes” but the president did not provide evidence for his assertions.

“Macri says Milagro is in jail because most people think she should be,” said Hector Recalde, a congressman from Fernandez’s Victory Front party. “That’s about the same as a lynching.”

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; editing by Grant McCool

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