Major corruption trial opens in Austria

Vienna (AFP) –


A keenly awaited major trial in Austria delving into alleged high-level corruption began on Tuesday as a flamboyant jet setting former finance minister and 14 others appeared in court.

The so-called Buwog affair centres on 9.6 million euros ($11.3 million) in alleged bribes paid out following a 2004 government sale of state properties.

Karl-Heinz Grasser was finance minister at the time -- as well as a society and tabloid darling married to a jewellery heiress -- and is accused of having known about the payments.

The money was allegedly hidden from the tax authorities by sending it to Cyprus and then to accounts in Liechtenstein, one of which was allegedly controlled by Grasser himself.

The case, which has attracted major media interest in the wealthy EU country, also involves alleged corrupt payments related to the renting of an office block in Linz.

His fellow defendants, who include a businessman, a real estate agent and a lobbyist, like Grasser deny wrongdoing and say that the payments were perfectly legal commissions.

The trial is expected to last a year. The charge sheet is 825 pages long and is based on hundreds of witness statements, tapped telephone calls and bank account details.

The charges include breach of trust, bribery, taking kickbacks, falsifying evidence, money laundering and fraud. The defendants face up to 10 years in prison.

The courtroom in Vienna has been specially renovated, reportedly for 500,000 euros, with air conditioning installed and the sound system updated, ahead of the trial.

Grasser, 48, was a protege of Joerg Haider, the controversial former head of the far-right Freedom Party who died in 2008 and who was also tied to multiple corruption allegations.

Grasser, who was Austria's youngest-ever finance minister when appointed in 2000, has also been accused of wrongdoing in a string of other cases.