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Swissair Ex-Executives On Trial After Airline's Collapse

First Two Of 19 Face Judgement

In what CNN is calling the biggest corporate trial in Swiss history, 19 former top executives, board members and consultants involved with the failed airline Swissair face charges in the wake of its financial collapse.

The airline, once the pride of Switzerland, was grounded in October 2001 after oil companies and airports refused to extend any more credit when the airline couldn't pay its fuel bills and landing fees.

In the trial, expected to last into March, defendants face charges of breach of fiduciary duties for fraudulent authorizations, false reporting of business and creditor preference, dishonest management and personal income tax fraud among others.

The first defendant, and former board member, Gerhard Fischer opened the trial with protestations of his innocence saying he had acted honorably. "I fulfilled my task with great responsibility," Fischer said in a statement he read out during the morning session. "The allegations by the prosecutor's office are unfounded and malicious."

Fischer claims the general collapse of the airline industry following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 caught him and his co-defendants unawares. He says the airline would survive today if not for those attacks.

Fischer and Benedict Hentsch were the first two defendants to face judgement in the trial. They both pleaded not-guilty, made brief opening statements and confirmed basic information such as birthplace and residence before refusing to answer any of the 150 questions prepared by a panel of judges.

Industry observers say the airline collapsed in part because of the debt it racked up during a rapid expansion and a strategy of buying stakes in other airlines such as Sabena.

Former Credit Suisse analyst Christophe Chandiramani, who lost his job after predicting a huge loss for Swissair in June 2000, told Bloomberg, "The takeover of Sabena was the first mistake and they didn't realize until too late how much it was costing. It was decline in slow motion."

Prosecutors hope the trial will illuminate the extent to which supervisory board members may be held accountable through an examination of transactions made within the Swissair Group before and during the airline's collapse.

FMI: www.admin.ch

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