GM evidence on Lopez

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TOP US executives from General Motors are due in court in Germany today to testify in their company's espionage battle against Volkswagen's purchasing chief, Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua.

The witnesses are expected to offer evidence that Mr Lopez and his closest colleagues amassed large quantities of top secret GM documents before suddenly jumping ship to VW in March. GM says these documents, which include details of future models and advance purchasing lists for suppliers, have been missing since then.

The hearing was forced by Der Spiegel, which is seeking to overturn a temporary injunction brought by Volkswagen to prevent it repeating allegations of large-scale industrial espionage by Mr Lopez.

The German magazine has called 22 witnesses, mostly executives from GM and its European subsidiary, Opel, to back up its allegations. 'We are very optimistic that after this hearing we shall be able to report freely and fully again,' Dietrich Krause, Der Spiegel's lawyer, said. 'We would not have started the case if we did not think we would succeed.'

Der Spiegel says it has witnesses who can contradict categorical denials by Mr Lopez that he requested technical details and photographs of specific new Opel models, and that documents were removed. VW, which is likely to be represented at the hearing only by its lawyers, said yesterday that this would not be the final word.

The evidence will come in sworn affidavits from GM and Opel employees stating that Mr Lopez and certain of the seven colleagues who left with him for VW requested and received confidential documents before leaving GM, documents which can no longer be found, Mr Krause said.

Among the witnesses called by Der Spiegel are David Clark, vice-president of GM Europe; Toni Simonetti, head of GM corporate communications in the US; John Howell, GM's European planning head; Michael Heuss, GM Europe's purchasing chief; and Fritz Indra, Opel's senior engineer in charge of model development.

While today's hearing is a legal confrontation between Volkswagen and Der Spiegel only, GM and Opel have jumped on the occasion as a means of turning up the heat in an extraordinarily bitter battle between the car giants.