A German court has sentenced the president of the prestigious soccer club Bayern Munich, Uli Hoeness, to three-and-a-half years in prison for dodging taxes. The high-profile trial has gripped the nation.
A regional court in the southern German city of Munich on Thursday found Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness guilty on seven counts of serious tax evasion and sentenced him to three-and a half years in prison.
Both the prosecution and defense can appeal the sentence at the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe.
Hoeness has a week to decide whether to appeal, during which time he remains out of prison.
The prosecution had called on Thursday for a five-and-a-half year sentence, while Hoeness' defense pleaded for at the most a suspended sentence. The maximum term for major tax fraud in Germany is 10 years, though sentences are usually shorter.
Hoeness was originally charged with dodging 3.5 million euros in taxes, but on Monday admitted to avoiding 15 million euros more than that.
However, testimony given on Tuesday revealed that Hoeness, 62, in fact withheld 27.2 million euros ($37.91 million) from the tax man.
The defense accepted this figure, calling it "accurate."
'A good day for civil justice'
"Uli Hoeness‘ team is not sitting in the Allianz Arena, but on the government benches," said Sahra Wagenknecht, a leading member of the opposition Left party, Die Linke.
"It would have hurt the public's sense of justice, if the big fish always get away, while the small business operator faces hefty fines for a late income tax return," she said.
Wagenknecht said calls for Hoeness' resignation and expressions of "artificial outrage" from the chancellory were not enough.
"It was absolutely right the court acted to judge him quickly and fairly," added Green party co-leader Anton Hofreiter.
Finance Ministry states secretary Michael Meister of Chancellor Merkel's conservative CDU party said: "The verdict against Hoeness will have effect of strengthening tax morality among citizens. It shows that it is not worthwhile to evade taxes."
Sports figures distance themselves
Meanwhile, high-profile figures in German football have expressed solidarity with Hoeness, but distanced themselves from the overall judicial process.
"The figures surprised us," said Wolfgang Niersbach, the prresident of Germany's DFB football federation. "The great merits of Hoeness for both FC Bayern amd German football remain separate from the trial. However, in such a case, the legal judgement is made only by the courts and the same rights must apply to Uli Hoeness as any other individual."
Germany's DFL football league president, Dr. Reinhard Rauball, added: "The merits of Uli Hoeness to German football still remain unaffected, despite his self-confessed misconduct."
"I feel infinitely sorry for Uli. I am very shocked by the thought that Uli will have to atone so heavily for his mistake," Rauball added.
Eintracht Frankfurt chairman Herbert Bruchhagen sympathized with the influential Bayern figure: "I am sad.
Ahead of the verdict, Bruchhagen said he had been "completely unsettled," adding that he did not think the case would impact negatively on football.
Former German international footballer Christoph Metzelder tweeted: "Now justice has spoken, the snide remarks must stop!"
Bayern supporter and tennis legend Boris Becker wrote in a short message: "I'm just sad for the man Uli Hoeness!"
Hoeness had reported himself to tax authorities in January last year.
The case hinged on whether the court found that his confession was made early enough, before an investigation began of his tax affairs, and whether it was comprehensive enough.
In handing down the sentence, judge Rupert Heindl ruled that Hoeness' voluntary disclosure was incomplete, thus failing to meet a vital requirement needed for amnesty under German tax laws aimed at encouraging tax dodgers to come clean.
Hoeness, once a star player, also runs a successful sausage-making business in addition to being Bayern Munich president and chairman of its supervisory board. Under his presidency, the club has become one of the world's top teams.
He is now expected to quickly step down from his positions in the club.
Thousands of Germans have paid back taxes to avoid prosecution since news of Hoeness' prosecution and trial hit the media. Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition has also come under increased pressure to crack down on tax evaders.
tj,rd/slk,ipj (AFP, Reuters, AP, sid, dpa)