It is a litigation drama without a leading actor: While the former VW boss Martin Winterkorn is allowed to follow the fraud proceedings leading to the creation of “Dieselgate” from afar, the other four defendants accuse him and each other of each other. The situation at the Regional Court of Braunschweig is becoming increasingly confusing. The main negotiation has now been running for three weeks, and there are signs of a slow progress, possibly by mid-2023.
Who knew what, when and how detailed about the deception software in millions of cars before it was blown up with a big bang in 2015? The prosecution has aggressively presented their investigation results and allegations against the former VW managers and engineers. She sees it as clear evidence of commercial and gang fraud.
“Mr. Volkswagen” is missing with a certificate
The executives already standing before the court admitted certain misjudgments here and there, according to the motto: Today I would act differently. “If I missed something, then I’m sorry,” said an accused ex-manager. However, they denied a deliberate resolution or an essential motivation for the “blowing up” that the public prosecutor had identified in their research on the statements of a high-ranking superior and referred more than once to the role of the top executive.
The problem: As long as Winterkorn is not present in person thanks to a medical certificate for a hip operation with subsequent rehab, it will be difficult for the commercial criminal chamber to clear the thicket of the sometimes contradicting representations. So far, his presumed co-responsibility can only be assessed according to the files. Even the entry into the taking of evidence and the first hearing of witnesses will now probably take place without the former “Mr. Volkswagen”.
Acceleration versus deceleration
This is highly controversial not only among critics of the car company, but also among those involved in the process. The presiding judge Christian Schtz had separated the part against Winterkorn from the opening against the other four with the reasoning that the entire proceedings could be accelerated and condensed after the long preparation time. Only when the state of health of the 74-year-old former chairman of the board allows it, he should join.
Defense lawyers for the other defendants refused to accept that. In any case, investigative strings have not yet been completed, they argued. At the same time, the indictment revolves to a large extent around the action or omission of Winterkorn. The declarations of her clients would be overshadowed: There is a risk of prejudice, even for what the once best-paid DAX manager would have to be held accountable for. Schtz and his fellow judges rejected an application to suspend the proceedings pending a decision by the Higher Regional Court (OLG).
Negotiable or not?
The public prosecutor’s office was also not enthusiastic about the chairman’s actions, albeit for different reasons. She wants to see Winterkorn sit in the courtroom as soon as possible and personally comment on the indictment. And anyway: is a hip problem, as uncomfortable as it may be, enough to completely cast doubt on the ability to negotiate? A medical officer must be called in, can be heard from investigative circles. Some people wonder if Winterkorn will ever appear at all.
Formally, the matter is clear since the Higher Regional Court also threw down a complaint from the prosecutors against the spin-off: Schtz’s decision was flawless with a view to the desired pace of proceedings against the four. A smack for the prosecutors. From when winter grain will be included remains an open question.
Executives and “drive freaks”
Meanwhile, the first appointments in the Braunschweiger Stadthalle have only been shown here with sufficient space for the process marathon. According to the indictment, the men were deeply involved in the development and use of the software. “Don’t get caught,” said a VW manager back in 2006 to an engineer who was also accused.
In a crisis round in 2012, the sentence is said to have been made: “If we’re going to do it right, then we’ll do it right.” From the point of view of the criminal prosecutors, the background was that the manipulation code was also “refined” with recognition of the steering angle in addition to the recognition of emissions tests. “You drive freaks, what have you done again?”, Winterkorn is said to have said in 2015, when the circle of confidants and pressure from the US authorities had grown according to the indictment.
“Taking responsibility looks different”
Soon after the trial started, the defense also focused on the absent ex-CEO. “The message of sitting here without Mr. Winterkorn is a disaster,” grumbled a lawyer. “Taking responsibility for your own actions looks different,” commented a colleague on the process of separation.
The first few days, however, also made a constellation appear among the four who are already present, in which there is often a testimony against a testimony. The engineers who are said to have proposed the illegal defeat device say: We voiced concerns and warned of the consequences. The superiors respond: Problems were discussed, but illegal actions were never discussed.
Everything at the beginning later?
The impression that technicians decided overnight to cheat customers is wrong, according to a former head of drive electronics. A manager countered that the software had never been presented to him separately and explicitly. “If I understand something clearly, then I position myself to do so,” explained the former head of VW engine development. On the manager’s side there was also talk of “untruthful statements” by the engineers “for their own relief”.
All four defendants reacted to the allegations with statements, some of which lasted several hours. Without any major interruptions, they were able to describe their view of the emissions affair to the court. Sometimes they presented the statements emotionally, sometimes soberly. Three of the men reported in a rather brief form, one spoke extensively about technical details.
In terms of content, it should become more exciting in the further course when the chamber directs its own questions to the defendants. And especially as soon as Winterkorn takes part. Had he been brought in under pressure from the public prosecutor’s office, it would have started all over again. Even so, for the classification of his role from the first Winterkorn meeting, the following should apply: not everything, but a lot at the beginning. (By Jan Petermann and Christian Brahmann, dpa / mer)
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