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Business

Trial of Deutsche Bank co-CEO Fitschen starts

Jürgen Fitschen and four former executives of German lender Deutsche Bank are accused of falsely testifying in court. DW takes a look at the case and the impact it could have on Germany's biggest bank.

It has been described as no less than the most spectacular trial in the history of German banking. When Deutsche Bank co-CEO Jürgen Fitschen faces fraud allegations in a Munich court starting April 28, much will be at stake.

For one, Fitschen's reputation within private banking circles could suffer. As co-head of Germany's biggest bank, he brings home an annual salary of 6.7 million euros ($7.3 million). He also enjoys an illustrious position as the president of the Association of German Banks.

But even Fitschen's freedom is at risk. If found guilty, the 66-year-old could face up to 10 years in prison.

The allegations against one of Germany's most prominent bankers involve testimony he gave in 2011 in a court case linked to the collapse of media mogul Leo Kirch's TV empire. But the trial's impact is not only limited to Fitschen.

Leo Kirch

Kirch blamed a former Deutsche Bank CEO for the collapse of his media group

On the weight of the trial, Germany's influential weekly, "Die Zeit," said the trial raised questions that went deeper than Fitschen's own culpability. Jurors would establish whether Deutsche Bank functioned as a normal financial institution or a criminal organization, the paper wrote.

All accusations denied

Fitschen, however, has made clear he won't back down from the fight. "I have neither lied nor cheated," the banker maintains.

The lawyer representing Fitschen is Hanns Feigen, one of Germany's best-known defense lawyers. People familiar with the trial said Fitschen turned down a plea deal with prosecutors that would have seen him pay a fine.

The court has limited hearings in the trial to one day a week and they come at a particularly inopportune moment for Deutsche. The bank recently

announced a new strategy

, the execution of which requires the complete attention of its executives.

But it remains to be seen just how effectively Fitschen will be able to oversee the plan's implementation when he has to spend at least one day a week in court. Sixteen days of court hearings are planned until September but that number could rise.

A partially absent co-CEO is only one of the bank's concerns. Last week, Deutsche agreed to pay a record multibillion-dollar fine to US and UK authorities for its role in manipulating Libor interest rates.

Commanding support

A fierce debate is already taking place in the bank's supervisory board, although Chairman Paul Achleitner has firmly backed Fitschen. Deutsche's powerful financial supervisors also have so far not expressed any qualms about the co-CEO.

But distance with the political class is growing, a distance that was indicated by the absence of high-ranking coalition officials at a recent meeting of the Association of German Banks hosted by Fitschen in Berlin.

Still, the bank's official line is that "the presumption of innocence applies to all former and current management board members."

Those former board members include two previous Deutsche Bank CEOs, Josef Ackermann and Rolf Breuer, as well as two former executive board members, Clemens Börsig and Tessen von Heydebreck.

All of them have been charged with attempted fraud relating to their testimonies in the Kirch trial.

Ackermann was indicted once already 11 years ago in a case over a hostile takeover of Mannesmann by Britain's Vodafone in early 2000. Critics decried his victory gestures in the court as being tantamount to the arrogance of bankers. Ackermann and other defendants ultimately agreed to a cash settlement with authorities.

The fall of Leo Kirch

The Kirch debacle can be traced back to 2002, when Breuer, the former Deutsche CEO, said in a TV interview with Bloomberg that lenders weren't prepared to refinance Kirch's cash-strapped business on the same terms as before.

The Kirch Group, which was the biggest private TV operator in Germany at the time, had to file for insolvency shortly thereafter. Kirch, who died in 2011, blamed Deutsche for his media group's collapse.

The bankruptcy set off one of the country's most high-profile corporate disputes, which was settled in a deal that cost Deutsche Bank some 925 million euros.

Noble banker or convicted felon?

However, the bank's problems did not end there. A separate investigation into the veracity of the testimony given by the Deutsche executives continued. Fitschen is accused of failing to correct the erroneous testimony given by his former colleagues rather than wrongly testifying himself.

That's what the Munich court is looking into now and its ruling will ultimately determine whether Fitschen's reputation as one of Germany's leading bankers will remain intact or whether he will go down in history as a convicted felon.