Former premier Geir Haarde insisted Monday he could not be held responsible for the collapse of Iceland's banks as he became the first political leader to be tried over the global financial crisis.
"I reject all accusations, and believe there is no basis for them," Haarde, 60, told the court in a calm and confident voice as he took the stand.
He pointed out that "this is the first time I get a chance to answer questions regarding this case," adding: "I hail the fact that I get to answer questions in the case."
Haarde, who headed the right-leaning Independence Party and was prime minister from mid-2006 to early 2009 when his coalition was ousted amid public uproar over the crisis, has previously dismissed the case as a farce.
He is being tried by Landsdomur, a never-before used special court for current and ex-ministers.
Haarde stands accused of failing to properly oversee Iceland's financial institutions, a charge he rejected.
"Only in hindsight is it evident that not everything was as it should have been," he told the court on Monday.
Haarde was one of four former Icelandic government ministers blamed in a 2010 report for contributing to the country's stunning financial sector collapse in late 2008, when all its major banks, which at the time held assets equal to 923 percent of gross domestic product, failed in a matter of weeks.
But parliament, now majority-held by Haarde's left-leaning opponents, voted in September 2010 that he was the only one who should be tried on charges related to the banking sector collapse, including the online Icesave bank implosion that spawned a fiery diplomatic row with Britain and the Netherlands.
In addition to Haarde, the so-called "Truth Report" published in April 2010 laid the blame for the crisis on the former ministers for finance and banking, as well as on David Oddsson, another former prime minister who was head of Iceland's central bank at the time of the economic implosion.
The heads of the failed banks and the former head of the country's Financial Supervisory Authority were also handed a large portion of the blame.
According to the report, Haarde and Oddsson had among other things in the spring of 2008 withheld information from relevant ministers and the government indicating that the country was headed for a major financial crisis.
The bank failure plunged Iceland into a deep recession, prompting a 2.1-billion-dollar bailout from the International Monetary Fund, and sent the value of its krona spiralling, but the country's economy has since returned to growth and is expected to expand 3.1 percent this year, according to the national statistics agency.
In an interview with AFP last July, Haarde insisted the whole trial was "a political farce motivated by some old political enemies who are cloaking this farce under the cover of a political trial."
"We saved the country from going bankrupt," he said in the interview.
Last October, the court threw out the most serious charge of "gross neglect".
But Haarde still stands accused of among other things showing inaction in reducing the size of the bloated banks and for not ensuring that the Icesave accounts in Britain and the Netherlands were split off into subsidiary companies in those countries.
If found guilty he could reportedly face up to two years in prison.
Parliament has since the beginning of the year been debating whether to drop all charges and call off the trial against Haarde, but finally voted last week to allow the proceedings to go ahead.
The trial is being held at the Icelandic Culture House in Reykjavik, chosen because it is large enough to house the proceedings and considered neutral ground, and is set to last until March 15.
Source: AFP Global Edition