Friday, May 28th 2004 - 21:00 UTC

Chilean justice blocks Menem extradition.

Former Argentine President Carlos Menem won a first round in the Chilean courts Thursday as a high-ranking judge threw out one of two requests from Argentina for Menem's extradition to answer to corruption charges.

With the ruling, which was based on a legal technicality, Supreme Court Judge Humberto Espejo denied the request filed by Argentine federal magistrate Norberto Oyarbide, investigating Menem for concealing the existence of a Swiss bank account.

"The Chilean judiciary has acted with the rigor we have always maintained is proper in these cases," said the former president's attorney, Gabriel Zaliasnik.

In his ruling, Espejo, who has been hearing the case since March 20, said that Oyarbide did not request Menem's extradition for illicit enrichment, but for his failure to comply with subpoenas to testify in that case.

The 1933 Montevideo Convention bans the extradition of a defendant merely because he failed to comply with a court process, the ruling noted. Court sources explained that now Oyarbide must file a new extradition request based on the underlying offense.

Menem, 73, who has been living in Santiago since last December with his Chilean second wife and the couple's infant son, has said repeatedly that he will not appear in any Argentine court because he fears he will not receive a fair trial.

Another extradition request against Menem is still pending which was filed by Argentine Federal Judge Jorge Urso, who is investigating a possible $500 million fraud in the construction of two jails during the former president's administration.

Regarding another aspect of the corruption allegations surrounding him, Menem acknowledged in an interview published here Thursday that bonuses were paid during his 1989-1999 tenure in office, contending the practice had been common in Argentina since the 1970s.

"Officials in all the subsequent administrations received bonuses," he said in statements published by the Chilean daily El Mercurio.

On April 23, a criminal case was opened to determine whether ex-ministers and other former officials received payments of as much as $50,000 monthly - above and beyond their official salaries - during Menem's term in office.

The case was opened after testimony was heard to that effect during the illegal enrichment trial of former Menem official Maria Julia Alsogaray, who was sentenced to three years in jail last Friday.

Menem had previously told Radio Colonia that no bonuses were paid and he "never" used government funds for his own benefit. "I was never informed of this. If it must go to trial, so be it," Menem said at the time.

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