When the indictment was read out, the criminal trial against four former Volkswagen managers began on Thursday at the regional court in Braunschweig.

The public prosecutor's office accuses them of having been involved in the development and use of software to manipulate diesel exhaust gas values ​​or of not having stopped it when they found out about it.

As executives of the VW group, the defendants were largely responsible for the fact that limit values ​​were not correctly observed and that the vehicles were advertised with false promises, said the prosecutor in charge, Elke Hoppeworth, when she read the summary of the indictment for around an hour and a half.

The aim was to help the company achieve higher profits, "because their bonus payments also depend on it".

Christian Müßgens

Business correspondent in Hamburg.

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The defendants are charged with different offenses in different periods of time in diesel fraud.

The accused engineers Thorsten D. and Hanno J. from the engine development departments are said to have “knowingly and willingly” been involved in the development of the software in question, which was installed in millions of vehicles around the world.

The American environmental agency made the fraud public in autumn 2015, triggering the diesel scandal that plunged VW into the deepest crisis in its company's history.

Jens Hadler, head of engine development from 2007, as well as his successor Heinz-Jakob Neußer, should have been “in the picture” at the latest when he took over this function. Nevertheless, they did not stop the manipulation, but rather contributed to concealing it, the public prosecutor accuses the managers. Neuss was later appointed Chief Development Officer for the VW brand. Both Hadler and Neußer have always denied the allegations.

Initially, the Chamber's latest decision to split the proceedings against the former VW CEO Martin Winterkorn because of his state of health did not play a major role at the start of the process. Prosecutor Hoppenworth read out the indictment, which also contains many allegations against Winterkorn, as planned, but put the designation "separately persecuted" in front of it every time his name was mentioned. Specifically, Winterkorn is said to have learned about the software on various occasions from May 2014, including during the now notorious damage table in July 2015.

Winterkorn called his confidante at the time to prepare. The senior employee told him: “We screwed up.” During the meeting, among other things, the scope of the threat of fines for around 500,000 manipulated diesel vehicles in the United States was discussed.

All those present - including Winterkorn - agreed that even at this point, a good two months before the affair was exposed, the shutdown function of emissions cleaning in road operations would continue to be concealed from the California environmental authority, CARB, said Hoppenworth. The former CEO did not stop marketing the affected vehicles either. Winterkorn has always denied having been in the picture early on. He only claims to have found out about the so-called defeat device, the illegal defeat devices, in September 2015, shortly before the scandal was discovered.

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