HANOVER, Germany (Reuters) - Christian Wulff on Thursday became Germany’s first post-war president to go on trial, charged with corruption for accepting some 700 euros for a hotel stay and meals during an Oktoberfest beer festival when he was a state premier.
Once seen as one of the country’s brightest political talents, Wulff served just 20 months as president before he resigned last year over accusations he accepted favours before he was elected president in 2010.
Wulff, 54, a former ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, denied the allegations, saying he hoped to clear his name with a victory in court after rejecting an offer from state prosecutors to settle the case with an out-of-court payment.
In court, Wulff delivered a 50-minute statement in which he criticised state prosecutors for a case he called a “farce”.
“The personal damage to me and my family will last, probably for the rest of my life,” he said. “I never accepted any deal. I‘m here because I want justice to be done.”
Wulff’s fall from the pinnacle of German politics to the Hanover courtroom dock has fascinated Germans, becoming the subject of countless talk shows and films.
It was also an embarrassment to Merkel, who hand-picked Wulff as her candidate for president in 2010 and stuck with her party ally as the controversy grew to fever pitch.
The scandal also damaged Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and contributed to her party’s defeat in the Lower Saxony regional election in January.
“This is certainly not an easy day for me,” Wulff told reporters on his way into the court in Hanover, the capital of Lower Saxony where he was the state premier from 2003 to 2010.
“I‘m quite confident that I’ll be able to clear away the last remaining charges against me.”
Wulff, once a rising star in the CDU and a popular regional leader who was even tipped to succeed Merkel, resigned on February 17, 2012 after prosecutors asked parliament to lift his immunity on suspicion he had accepted undue privileges.
The charges stem from his 2008 visit to the Munich Oktoberfest beer festival. Prosecutors say film producer David Groenewold covered his hotel and meal expenses worth 719 euros ($960).
State prosecutors argued that in exchange Wulff wrote a letter to the chairman of Siemens, on behalf of Groenewold, seeking financial support for one of his film projects entitled “John Rabe”, about a war-era Siemens manager in China.
“There is sufficient suspicion” of corruption by Wulff and Groenewold, state prosecutor Clemens Eimterbaeumer told the court. “Wulff was aware that Groenewold expected him to intervene on his behalf with Siemens.”
If convicted of the charges, Wulff could face up to three years in jail. The trial, by three judges but no jury, is expected to last until April, with some 22 court dates.
Wulff’s reputation had already been suffering after the Bild daily accused him in 2011 of misleading the Lower Saxony state parliament over a cheap home loan from a businessman friend.
Wulff later expressed regret over the matter and apologised for threatening Bild’s editor with “war” if he ran the story.
Nevertheless, a stream of allegations about flight upgrades, hotel stays and gifts followed, eroding his credibility.
Germans traditionally look to their president, a largely ceremonial office above politics, as a source of moral authority in society and a counterbalance to the government.
After Wulff resigned, former East German anti-Communist dissident and rights activist Joachim Gauck was elected president.
Shortly after World War Two, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz was the first German president put on trial - over his role in Hitler’s Nazi regime. He was convicted at the 1945-46 Nuremberg military tribunals and spent 10 years in a West Berlin jail. ($1 = 0.7460 euros)
Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Mark Heinrich