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Germany

Christian Wulff fights for his honor

The former German president is appearing in court after he rejected a deal with the prosecution. Having been forced to resign, he wants the court to at least declare that he's not a criminal.

Former German president Christian Wulff will be in the dock at a regional court in Hanover on Thursday (14.11.2013), facing charges of having used his office to personal advantage. He could face a fine or up to three years in prison.

It's an unprecedented, almost sensational event, and Wulff, who was president from June 2010 until his resignation in February 2012, will have to run the gauntlet of cameras and journalists.

All the unpleasant facts will come up again: Wulff's liking for glamor and the world of the rich and famous, the controversial credit for his house, and the holidays in cottages of wealthy friends. He'll also have to hear once more about those parties and gala events which his friends - like his co-defendant David Groenewold - organized for him.

Last but not least, there's Wulff's embarrassing phone call to the editor of the mass-circulation "Bild" newspaper, in which he revealed his questionable understanding of press freedom. His ex-wife Bettina Wulff and some other well-known figures will appear as witnesses.

Only one charge

Christian and Bettina Wulff at a gala event. Groenewald is behind them. Photo: Felix Hörhager/dpa

Christian Wulff's ex-wife, Bettina, will appear in court as a witness

The former president could have avoided all that. The prosecution offered to drop the case bif Wulff paid a fine of 20,000 euros ($27,000). That wouldn't have been a financial problem for his: like all his predecessors, he receives an annual honorarium of 200,000 euros a year, plus a car and an office.

But Wulff rejected the deal, telling his lawyers to issue a statement that would fight "for the rights and dignity of the former Federal President Christian Wulff." Having failed as president, having been humiliated by the media and pitied by many Germans, he wants to clear his name from the suspicion that he's a criminal.

His lawyers Bernd Müssig and Michael Nagel think he's got a good chance. Out of all the incidents in which there were suspicions that Wulff had behaved corruptly, only one is left. And, like all the other cases, it did not take place while he was president but while he was premier of Lower Saxony. That's why the case is being heard in Hanover, the state capital.

Generous film producer

Nagel and Müssig Photo: Holger Hollemann/dpa (zu lni 0941 vom 09.04.2013)

Wulff's lawyers Michael Nagel, left, and Bernd Müssig are fighting to defend Wulff's reputation

The prosecution case focuses on a visit by Wulff to the Oktoberfest visit in 2008 for which his friend, the film producer David Groenewold, partly paid the bill and the hotel costs. It amounts to a total of 750 euros.

According to the charges, in return Wulff asked Peter Löscher, then CEO of Siemens, if he would support one of Groenewold's film projects. The request was not successful. Wulff's lawyers deny any connection between the Oktoberfest visit and the request, but Germany's strict law on corruption could seal Wulff's fate, in spite of the small sum involved and the difficulty in proving the connection. Under German law, even what's known as "caring for the environment" - tacitly accepting a kind of give and take of performance and reward - is a punishable offence.

The prosecution plans to show the complex relationship between Wulff and Groenewold. In the trial, which is scheduled to last until April 2014, the judges will have to decide where friendship ends and where preferential treatment starts. Originally the prosecution wanted to charge Wulff with corruption but the court has only allowed the charge of taking advantage of public office.

Wrong choice as president

Wulff and his wife leave the room after his resignation speech photo: Jörg Carstensen dpa

Wulff is the only president who had to resign while under police investigation

But even if Wulff is acquitted, people in Germany will still tend to believe that he was the wrong man for the presidency. Even if he wasn't guilty of anything illegal, his embarrassing behavior - also in connection with this case - has destroyed his reputation. The Germans expect their presidents to be moral authorities like Richard von Weizsäcker or - for an older generation - Theodor Heuss. At least Wulff's successor Joachim Gauck has been able to make the president the most popular politician in opinion polls - a position the president traditionally holds.

But Wulff has been able to provide some support for the film industry, if not for Groenewald: the television station Sat 1 is making a film about the affair with an all-star cast.

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