The trial of India's former telecommunications minister and 13 others accused in India's largest corruption scandal began Friday, with all of the defendants choosing to plead not guilty.
The defendants are accused of conspiring to rob the government of revenue from 2G telecom spectrum licenses in 2008. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has alleged that former telecom minister A. Raja, DMK member of parliament Kanimozhi and 12 other government officials and corporate executives conspired to circumvent a transparent auction of the licenses, routing kickbacks through a complex web of shell companies. The loss to the government has been estimated at more than $35 billion, though that's only a nominal figure based on the proceeds of a subsequent auction of 3G spectrum.
According to India's NDTV news, the courtroom was packed for the first day of proceedings, which are likely to stretch on for many months, and perhaps years, given the slow pace of the Indian justice system.
The CBI has presented a list of 150 witnesses, saying that it will call some 28 of them to testify this month, focusing on the alleged involvement of executives from the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) owned by billionaire industrialist Anil Ambani and Etisalat DB (formerly Swan Telecom).
Raja and former telecom secretary Siddarth Behura face the most serious charges, however. If convicted of criminal breach of trust by a public servant, the two former government officials could face life in prison, the news channel said.
The so-called "2G telecom spectrum scam" monopolized the front pages of Indian newspapers for months this year, and was arguably the catalyst for the anti-corruption movement led by social activist Anna Hazare. Many believe that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will lose power in the next national elections, scheduled for 2014 if Singh serves out his full term, as a result.