March 1, 2015 / 10:39 PM / 2 years ago

Cleared of cover-up charges, Argentine leader comes out swinging

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner waves after arriving for the opening session of the 133rd legislative term of Congress in Buenos Aires, March 1, 2015.Marcos Brindicci

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina's scandal-hit president came out swinging with a fiery speech about justice on Sunday, retaking the initiative three days after being cleared of allegations that she tried to derail an investigation into a deadly 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires.

In mid-January Cristina Fernandez was accused of conspiring to cover up Iran's alleged role in the truck-bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center. Prosecutor Alberto Nisman said Fernandez conspired to whitewash the bombing in order to complete a grains-for-oil deal with Tehran.

Days after leveling the charge, Nisman was found dead, a bullet in his head, a gun by his side. His accusation and mysterious death hurt Fernandez's credibility and sent her government reeling while conspiracy theories multiplied.

In her first speech since a judge threw out the cover-up allegation on Thursday for lack of evidence, Fernandez took aim at the rogue intelligence agents she blames for the scandal.

"Twenty-one years have passed without a single conviction for AMIA," the two-term president shouted during her final annual address to Congress on Sunday, in which she claimed to have done everything possible to get to the bottom of the case.

Fernandez said fault for the lack of progress in solving the bombing lies with the local courts "and the intelligence services that covered up, and covered up, and did not permit the truth to be known."

"If there have been delays," she shouted, her voice breaking, "look somewhere else. Don't look here."

Adding to the confusion over the case, Fernandez said two signed documents were found in Nisman's safe after he died. One argued the case against her while the other said she had nothing to do with a cover-up.

"Which Nisman am I left with?" she said.

Fernandez has accused former counterintelligence chief Antonio Stiuso of manipulating Nisman into making the allegation in order to smear her, and then of having a hand in his death.

Stiuso, who has left the country, is also accused of operating a smuggling ring from the headquarters of the SI Intelligence agency, which Congress voted to disband last week.

Fernandez, constitutionally barred from running for a third term in October's election, has nine more months in office.

Polls show the cover-up allegations and Nisman's death have damaged Fernandez's popularity, already strained by a weak economy, and will hurt government-allied candidates in the October vote.

Additional reporting by Maximilian Heath; Editing by Eric Walsh

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