Those called to answer charges in the Palais de Justice in Brussels included Willy Claes, the country's former deputy prime minister and economic affairs minister who was forced to resign prematurely as Nato secretary-general in 1995.
In a country rocked by the mishandling of the Dutroux paedophile scandal the trial, with its allegations of multi-million pound bribery at the heart of government, has assumed an almost cathartic importance. And it is likely to damage further the image of the governing coalition of Socialists and Christian Democrats, led by Jean-Luc Dehaene, ahead of next year's Belgian elections.
The allegations, which date back a decade, relate to cash offered to Belgium's French and Flemish-speaking Socialist parties as inducements to win lucrative military contracts. The first, with the Italian company Agusta, was for the supply of 46 helicopters to the Belgian armed forces. The second involves the French company Dassault Aviation, which won a contract in 1989 to modernise the country's fighter planes.
Both firms, it later emerged, had made private payments to Belgium's French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Socialist parties. In doing so the companies may have implicated some of the most senior figures in the political establishment.
The 12 charged include Guy Coeme, former defence minister, and Guy Spitaels, former head of the French-speaking Socialist Party. Mr Claes at first denied knowledge of any payments but later admitted attending a meeting at which deals were discussed.
A setback for the prosecution has been the untimely death of one of the accused, 72-year-old Rafaello Teti, the former boss of Agusta who was accused of "active corruption", a more serious charge than that faced by all but one of the other defendants. Extradited from Brazil to Belgium in 1996, Teti died of a heart attack 10 days ago.
In court yesterday his lawyer, Xavier Magnee, read a statement in defence of the deceased before declaring: "You have said goodbye to the world and mankind. You have already appeared before your judge."
The Socialist parties are alleged to have received more than pounds 2m from the two companies. None of the accused benefited personally from the "gifts" and, at the time, contributions to political parties were legal.
The prosecutor, Eliane Liekendael, concentrated her fire yesterday on Serge Dassault, against whom, she said, there were "serious converging clues" of corruption.
Few expect speedy results from the proceedings, which are expected to last months. But the case has provoked soul-searching among the Belgian political elite. In a front-page editorial Le Soir declared it a "unique opportunity for Belgian democracy". Despite the difficulties of the judicial process, the trial "could help restore confidence in institutions which lack it".Reuse content