Criticism Flies After Quick Court Verdict in Althaus Skiing Death | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.03.2009
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Criticism Flies After Quick Court Verdict in Althaus Skiing Death

Thuringia state premier Dieter Althaus may still have a political future despite an Austrian court verdict blaming him for a collision on a ski slope that left a woman dead. But some say he was given special treatment.

Cross at the site of the accident

Althaus' accident happened on New Year's Day

On Tuesday, March 3, a regional court in Irdning found Althaus guilty of "fahrlaessige Toetung," a category that encompasses both manslaughter and accidentally causing someone's death.

Althaus was fined 33,300 euros ($42,000) and ordered to pay 5,000 euros compensation to the husband of the victim, Beata Christandl, a Slovak woman who lived in the United States.

Althaus, who says he cannot remember the accident, immediately accepted the verdict.

"What's important to me is that the material compensation for those Beata Christandl left behind is not delayed," he said in a statement. "I hope the legal conclusion of the skiing accident serves her dependents' interests and upholds Mrs. Christandl's dignity."

The accident occurred at a ski resort in the Styria region of Austria on January 1, 2009, when Althaus turned uphill into the slope on which Christandl was descending, causing the two to collide head on.

Despite being found guilty by the Austrian court, Althaus is not considered to have an official criminal record under German law, meaning the conservative state premier is eligible to run in Thuringia's regional election in August.

Political future open

Althaus in front of a ski slope

Althaus himself was in a temporary coma after the collision

The CDU in Thuringia has said that it will still back Althaus -- who was also seriously hurt in the accident and who has largely avoided the public eye since the tragic incident -- as its leading candidate in that election.

Althaus is still undergoing therapy to recover from his injuries and has said nothing about whether he will stand for re-election. But he remains one of the most popular conservatives in the eastern German state.

"He's the best-known politician in Thuringia, and he's pretty well liked," political scientist Gerd Langguth told Reuters news agency. "He is the only person who can decide whether he wants to stand down as CDU candidate."

But there has also been criticism both in Austria and Germany that the case was settled unusually quickly and behind closed doors.

"One can't avoid the impression here that special treatment has been given," Richard Soyer, a spokesman for the association of Austrian prosecutors told Reuters.

An overview of the site of the accident

The collision occured because of a mistake Althaus at a slope intersection

That sentiment was echoed by Austrian opinion makers.

"A verdict within 40 minutes and the exclusion of the public from a trial that would have interested observers outside the courtroom where negotiations took place…the surface appearance remains that this was hurried through so that [politicians and VIPs] could be amongst themselves," wrote Salzburger Nachrichten newspaper.

Members of other political parties in Thuringia were also critical.

"I'm dumbfounded by the form of this trial," the lead candidate for the Left Party in Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper. "I didn't know that turbo-powered trials were part of the Austrian legal system"

Conservatives, however, were quick to praise Althaus for not trying to deny blame for the victim's death.

"My respect goes out to Dieter Althaus for accepting responsibility for this tragic accident," former Thuringia state premier Bernhard Vogel told a local radio station.

Now, political observers in the eastern German state will be waiting to see what Althaus decides about his political future.

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