File photo, Former Argentine President Carlos Menem attends his swearing-in ceremony as senator for La Rioja province at the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov. 29, 2005 (Photo: AP)
Argentine ex-president Carlos Menem was sentenced to seven years in prison Thursday for organizing contraband arms shipments to Croatia and Ecuador during his tenure.
Menem, 82, who currently serves as a senator, is due to begin serving his sentence immediately, the president of the tribunal declared as he read out the ruling in court.
But because Menem enjoys immunity as a legislator, the former president must first go through an impeachment process by his fellow lawmakers.
If they fail to oust him from the Senate, Menem could be incarcerated after his term ends in 2017, legal observers said.
An appeals court in March affirmed a guilty verdict against Menem, who ruled from 1989-1999, and his then-defense minister, Oscar Camilion, for smuggling 6,500 tons of weapons and ammunition to Croatia and Ecuador.
He was convicted of "aggravated smuggling," considered a serious offense because the crime involved war material and was carried out by government officials.
The weapons were sent to Croatia in seven shipments aboard freighters between 1991 and 1995.
At the time, much of the Balkans was under a UN arms embargo following the break up of Yugoslavia. More arms were sent to Ecuador aboard three flights in February 1995.
The weapons were labeled as being destined for Panama and Venezuela, but this was ultimately deemed a maneuver to dodge weapons embargoes then in force against Croatia and Ecuador.
At the time, Ecuador was engaged in a border war with Peru, and Argentina was banned from selling weapons to either side as one of the guarantors of a peace agreement the two nations signed ending an earlier war in 1942.
Menem has said that the transactions were legal because the weapons -- rifles, artillery, mortars, anti-tank rockets and ammunition -- were being sent to countries at peace.