BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Former Argentine President Carlos Menem and 17 members of his government were acquitted Tuesday of charges that they violated international weapons embargoes on Ecuador and Croatia in the 1990s.
Menem, still a sitting senator at 81, had faced up to eight years in prison if convicted, but two of the three judges on his panel found him not guilty.
Menem denied trafficking in weapons during his 1989-1999 rule. He acknowledged signing three secret decrees between 1991 and 1995 to export weapons to Venezuela and Panama, but said he had no idea that tons of rifles and ammunition made in Argentina would end up in Ecuador and Croatia, countries subject to international embargoes at the time.
"My acts as president were limited to signing the decrees to export the arms to Venezuela and Panama," he testified during the trial. "From then on, all the documents escape the (control of) the president. I couldn't go to the Customs service to see what the destination of the arms was."
On his way into the courtroom Tuesday, Menem remarked on the pending verdict.
"You've got to have faith and hope," he said.
Menem's co-defendants also were found not guilty. They included his former brother-in-law and aide Emir Yoma; former Defense Minister Oscar Camilion; and former air force chief, Juan Paulik.
The arms trafficking became public in 1995 when the weapons showed up in Ecuador and Croatia's conflict zones, and the Argentine newspaper Clarin published an investigation. Despite the international scandal it generated, Menem was re-elected with 50 percent support.
The case then progressed slowly as Menem moved from sworn political enemy to dependable ally of the governments of the late Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernandez. After the couple took over the presidential palace in 2003, Menem's absence during several key votes provided the ruling party with just the edge it needed for major initiatives.
Even if convicted, Menem would have served time only if the Senate voted to remove the immunity Argentine lawmakers enjoy.
Menem had been held under house arrest for six months in 2001, but at the time he faced only a conspiracy charge and Argentina's Supreme Court set him free. Arms trafficking was added later, but by then he enjoyed senatorial immunity. The trial began in 2008, and 383 witnesses eventually testified, many by videoconference from Ecuador, Peru and Europe.
Prosecutors had asked for eight years in prison, alleging that Menem must have known where the weapons went.
Associated Press writer Debora Rey contributed to this story. Follow Warren at http://www.twitter.com/mwarrenap