There's a different way to be spectacular: At the start of the major fraud trial surrounding the diesel scandal at Volkswagen, observers joked about the rather boring "brown on brown" color scheme in the Braunschweig town hall.
The regional court had moved to the building in need of renovation due to space constraints. The interest in “Dieselgate” and the alleged protagonists from the VW Group was huge. Two years later, it seems as if the sober atmosphere and the process have adapted to one another.
Coming to terms with one of the biggest German economic scandals
On September 16, 2021, the stands will be fully occupied - as far as the Corona restrictions allow. TV teams from several countries are gathered in front of the door. Expectations for the criminal investigation into one of Germany's biggest economic scandals were high, but at this point they had already suffered the first major setback. Because the actual main person was missing, the process began without the former VW CEO Martin Winterkorn.
Initially, only four ex-executives of the Wolfsburg car manufacturer are being negotiated. The prosecution accuses the engineers and managers of being deeply involved in the development and use of the manipulation software in millions of vehicles. They continue to face up to ten years in prison for commercial and gang fraud.
The scandal was exposed in September 2015 when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported manipulation of diesel car emissions tests. The CEO resigned and an industrial crisis of unprecedented proportions began. Winterkorn later rejected the allegations against him and asserted that he had no knowledge of any illegal activity before the manipulations became known.
Based on a medical report, the case against the now 76-year-old was separated. Both the defense attorneys for the other defendants and the public prosecutor sharply criticized this at the time. Public interest in a trial without Winterkorn declined rapidly.
According to a court spokesman, the question of Winterkorn's ability to stand trial is currently being reviewed again. Whether and when negotiations will be held against the former VW boss remains completely open.
In the first criminal verdict in the diesel scandal in Germany, the Munich regional court sentenced former Audi boss Rupert Stadler and two co-defendants to long suspended sentences for fraud. However, this is not legally binding and an appeal has been lodged.
Disagreement and delays in the process
When asked, Volkswagen itself has recently emphasized again that the criminal proceedings against the group in Germany have been completed. The car manufacturer continues to estimate the costs for the “consequences of the diesel issue” at around 32 billion euros. However, VW is not involved in the trial marathon in the Braunschweig town hall.
More than 85 days of negotiations have now been completed and it is difficult to get a current status. After corona-related postponements at the beginning, parental leave also slowed down the process. A large number of the witnesses considered to be relevant exercised their right to refuse to testify.
Other interrogations achieve next to nothing. Some of the judges seemed annoyed and it was getting loud in the room. During a questioning in April, for example, the presiding judge Christian Schütz made it clear that he did not agree with the statements and, in his opinion, an investigation into unsworn false statements was necessary. The process remains characterized by mutual blame, gaps in memory and sometimes even heated verbal battles.
Anyone who comes to the town hall in Braunschweig these days will experience a process that is anything but spectacular. The judges sit on the stage, the defendants, their defense lawyers and the public prosecutor are spread out across the room. Only a few observers come into the stands. The witness program is played out. At least the process is moving forward.
Further dates until 2024
However, clarification for the numerous other accused in the Braunschweig investigation complex still seems a long way off. After the scandal was exposed, the public prosecutor's office initially investigated 96 accused, as a spokesman said upon request. According to him, 29 of them are accused in a total of four proceedings at the regional court. However, the case against a further 19 accused is still with the public prosecutor's office.
On the other hand, the diesel affair has now been resolved for half of those originally accused. 48 were provisionally discontinued. Of these, 43 are already final because the relevant requirements have been met. However, the public prosecutor's office does not want to provide any precise information about the amount of the fines imposed.
The only thing that is currently clear is that further dates are planned until August 2024 for the major fraud trial regarding the diesel affair at Volkswagen. There is no end in sight for the four defendants in the near future. At some point things could get tight for another reason. The town hall is scheduled to be renovated from the end of 2024.