Main Parmalat trial opens Friday

( AFP ) - The main trial over the collapse of Italian food giant Parmalat opens in the northern city of Parma on Friday, with 55 defendants to face charges of bankruptcy fraud and criminal association.

The Parmalat affair, one of Europe's biggest financial scandals, erupted in late 2003 when more than 14 billion euros (22 billion dollars at current rates) went missing from the group's accounts.

The demise of the food conglomerate, which employed 36,000 in 30 countries, wiped out the savings of some 135,000 people in Italy.

Among the 55 defendants are the group's founder, Calisto Tanzi, and his brother Giovanni, chief financial officer Fausto Tonna and several bankers.

The preliminary investigating magistrate in Parma, who indicted the defendants in July 2007, also accepted a demand for damages worth around 40 million euros for some 35,000 savers who have filed a civil suit.

One of Europe's biggest-ever bankruptcies has led to several trials in which defendants, including Tanzi's adult children Francesca and Stefano, have already negotiated lighter prison terms.

The trial opening Friday is the biggest because it involves the most defendants and the most serious allegations, including bankruptcy fraud, false accounting, criminal association and communicating false information.

Tanzi and Tonna face up to 15 years in jail if convicted in the scandal, dubbed "Europe's Enron" after the failure of the giant US energy company.

Two other trials are already under way in Milan focusing on the financial aspects of Parmalat's collapse.

They are taking place in Italy's economic hub instead of Parma because the group is listed on the Milan stock exchange.

In one of the Milan trials, five foreign banks -- US giants Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America as well as Switzerland's UBS and Deutsche Bank of Germany -- are in the dock accused of share price manipulation.

They are suspected of organising bond issues, taken up by small savers, with the goal of using fees earned in the operation to reduce their losses if the enterprise failed in the full knowledge of the group's financial insolvency.

Some 40,000 Italian savers are claiming damages from the banks.

A second trial in Milan, also on share price manipulation and false financial information, involves Italian banks, auditors and individuals including Tanzi and several of his colleagues.

Tanzi's lawyers argue that the banks are at least as culpable as the group founder because they financed Parmalat knowing that it was insolvent, investing in shares of the company in order later to recover their own money.

"We are perfectly aware of the seriousness of the accusations against our client but we are optimistic in the face of this trial because we are convinced of the correctness of our defensive line," lawyer Fabio Belloni told AFP.

Parmalat, grouping a host of companies, owned the Parma football club and the Parmatour tourism company.

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