By Nicolás Misculin
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina's President Mauricio Macri has pushed out the chief prosecutor, argued for federal judges to be fired and is planning judicial reforms as charges pile up against his predecessor's government.
Macri's supporters have cheered what they see as an overdue effort to reform Argentina's sluggish judiciary. But his opponents smell a witch hunt against former leader Cristina Fernandez and fear the government is trying to use the courts to eliminate opponents.
On Thursday, a federal judge dealt the hardest blow yet to Fernandez, asking for Congress to remove her immunity as a senator so she could be arrested.
The judge indicted Fernandez for treason and allegedly covering up Iran's role in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre that killed 85 people.
That followed the arrest of two key officials from Fernandez's administration days after Macri's coalition swept mid-term elections on Oct. 22.
Former planning minister Julio De Vido was detained on Oct. 25, followed by former vice president Amado Boudou on Nov. 3. Both deny wrongdoing.
Fernandez has denied personal wrongdoing and accuses Macri of using the judiciary for political persecution.
"I'd like to tell President Macri that the campaign ended in October, although some people have not noticed," Fernandez told a news conference on Thursday.
She was also indicted a year ago on charges she ran a corruption scheme with her public works secretary, who was caught trying to stash millions of dollars in a convent. Fernandez has admitted there may have been corruption in her government but personally denies wrongdoing.
Macri, meanwhile, has pledged to strengthen the judiciary and says he will make it more independent. He plans changes to the federal prosecutors' office and a reform of the Judicial Council, which appoints judges.
The reforms would require congressional approval and a source from Macri's coalition said they would be presented next year, after higher profile tax and labour reforms are debated.
Unions and allies of Fernandez oppose many of the centre-right Macri's economic measures. So do many judges, who are historically staunch defenders of workers' rights.
"They are using the Council to tame judges who dare to make rulings that reverse government decisions," said Rodolfo Tailhade, a Judicial Council member and a lawmaker allied with Fernandez.
Tailhade and a federal judge, who requested anonymity, both said the reform may allow the removal of judges for poor performance with a simple majority rather than the current nine out of 13 votes. The Council is a mix of political appointments, judges and lawyers.
The justice ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Justice Minister German Garavano recently told Radio 10 the executive branch "does not exert pressure on judges." He said the judicial system needs structural change to reduce a backlog of cases.
TENSIONS WITH PROSECUTORS
Tensions with prosecutors, some of whom are allied with Fernandez, have also increased. Former chief prosecutor Alejandra Gils Carbo resigned in October over accusations she hampered corruption investigations of Fernandez's government.
Macri described Gils Carbo as a "political activist" who misused her power.
Among the names mentioned as a possible replacement for her are officials who have advocated more aggressive investigation of the previous government.
Another prosecutor, who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information, said colleagues are worried about potential government intervention.
However, some recent court cases have also involved people close to Macri. A prosecutor last week recommended courts freeze 54 billion pesos (£2.3 billion) in assets belonging to construction magnate Angel Calcaterra, a cousin of Macri, over suspicion of bribe payments linked to Brazil's Odebrecht.
Calcaterra denies wrongdoing but sold his stake in the company, Iecsa, to avoid conflicts of interest that could arise due to Macri's position.
Even opponents of Fernandez have warned Macri to tread carefully with judicial reform.
"The reform...cannot be used to pursue judges or prosecutors," said congresswoman Margarita Stolbizer, a member of a more moderate opposition party.
(Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Hay)