Giuseppe Orsi, ex-CEO, Finmeccanica & Bruno Spagnolini, ex CEO, AgustaWestland in the dock

Busto Arsizio is an ugly industrial suburb located just north of Milan. It is 9.00 a.m. on 19 June and the ground floor audience chamber in the unimposing brick and glass district courthouse is crowded with journalists who vastly outnumber court officials or bustling black-clad lawyers and their assistants. Today is the opening of a very high-profile trial.

In the dock are Giuseppe Orsi, former Chairman and CEO of Italy’s biggest company, Finmeccanica, which employs over 70,000 people, and his erstwhile colleague, Bruno Spagnolini, former CEO of AgustaWestland helicopters, a Finmeccanica subsidiary. They are charged with bribery, tax evasion and fraud, allegedly paying bribes to middlemen in order to secure a 560 million euro deal for the sale of 12 VVIP helicopters to India in 2010.

There is little regalia — the furniture is functional — and almost no fanfare. Those present politely rise but continue chatting as the Presiding Judge, the grey haired, bearded and bespectacled Toni Adet Novik takes his place. There is a small silence as the evidence — huge, bound black and white files, is wheeled on trolleys. The proceedings begin at once.

Defence lawyers, Professor Ennio Amodio and Massimo Bassi argue eloquently and at length that a) India should not be admitted as a civil party because they have doubts about the extent to which Deputy Chief of Mission in Rome, Ravi Shankar, is empowered to represent the government of India, and b) that the proposal by the Public Prosecutor Eugenio Fusco, to scuttle lengthy preliminary arguments is both “illegitimate and unconstitutional”.

But the Presiding Judge is having none of that. After a brief private chat with the defence in chambers he retains none of their arguments. This is a significant victory for India, which can now lay claim to the mountainous pile of files (120 in all) that contain the evidence. Hundreds of hours of wiretaps, e-mails, sms messages, bank account details, tax returns and reams of recorded testimony from Guido Haschke, Lorenzo Borgogni, the initial whistle blower and at least a dozen others.

The Public Prosecutor defends his decision to ask for a speedy trial called an “immediate” procedure in Italy that dispenses with a lot of legal beating about the bush. The defence lawyer counters that, saying the prosecutor took very long to collect his evidence and build up his case but has given the defence a mere three weeks to examine it. “The last Rogatory Letter was sent on April 15 and here we are at a trial where the defence has to read through all this in the space of a few weeks and go to trial forthwith without preliminary hearings,” hammers Prof. Amodio.

“There is rock solid evidence,” rejoins Prosecutor Fusco. “The accused has already spent 80 days in prison. When the case is so watertight it would not be right to keep the accused in preventive custody any further. The evidence collected has already been examined by the judge who placed the accused in preventive detention. So certain guaranteed are inbuilt”, Mr. Fusco tells the court.

The judge rules in the prosecutor’s favour and the ball is back in the court of the defence lawyers.

Massimo Bassi argues that the evidence is incomplete. “We do not have the Indian documents, the exact tender notices that were issue in response to which the defendants made their offers. There has been no questioning of Indian officials involved in this deal. We would like the Indian officials to be produced here as witnesses, including Shashi Tyagi and Defence Minister A.K. Antony. We have severe doubts abut the testimony of Guido Haschke. What did he do? What was his role, his relations with Indian officials? The Swiss national Haschke on whose declarations much of this case rests must also be produced in court,” demands Advocate Bassi.

Neither Orsi nor Spagnoligni are in court. “There was absolutely no wrongdoing whatsoever. Everyone knows that AgustaWestland was the best helicopter in the running. So there was no need for any bribery,” Professor Amodio tells The Hindu.

“The Presiding Judge is a courageous man. There have been allegations that a lot of this money was being routed to the Lega Nord, the xenophobic party from Lombardy which would like to break up Italy into three federal zones. This story is a lot murkier than it looks,” whispers a journalist from a local newspaper. This is big news. The Lega or Northern League, a xenophobic, right wing political party has been Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition partner, holding important portfolios like that of the interior. There have been allegations in the past of illicit party funding.

“For us this is a huge story. Finmeccanica has supplanted Fiat as the country’s biggest industrial group. If they are blacklisted that would be very bad for Italy,” says Claudio Del Frate, the journalist from Corriere della Sera. “But the evidence is so overwhelming, I do not know how they can get off the hook.”

The audience adjourns with a fresh date set for July 11.