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A German doctor accused of masterminding an international blood-doping network dismantled last year went on trial in Munich on Wednesday.
Sports physician Mark Schmidt, 42, and four co-defendants who allegedly aided him, are accused of helping at least two dozen athletes undergo blood transfusions to boost performance illicitly from "the end of 2011 at the latest", according to state prosecutors.
"We accuse this sports doctor and his helpers of using doping substances on a commercial basis and in gangs," senior prosecutor Anne Leiding told Munich's regional court.
If found guilty, Schmidt and his co-defendants could be jailed for up to ten years under anti-doping legislation introduced in Germany in 2015.
His defence lawyer, Yuri Goldstein, said the first day in court "went exactly as imagined", but some revelations are expected as evidence is heard over the coming weeks.
So far, 23 athletes -- mainly skiers and cyclists -- from eight countries are known to be involved.
The most prominent are former cyclists Alessandro Petacchi, a stage winner of the Tour de France, and Danilo Hondo, who won two stages of the 2001 Giro d'Italia, but more names may emerge during the evidence.
"It may well be that in the course of the trial, through information from witnesses or even more detailed statements by defendants, new aspects will come to light," Leiding said.
His defence team said Schmidt would not speak Wednesday, but he is expected to make a statement during the trial, which is expected to finish by December 21.
The case echoes that of sports doctor Michele Ferrari, who worked with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and was given a 12-month suspended jail sentence by an Italian court in 2004 for malpractice.
This is the first major doping prosecution in Germany under the 2015 law.
"It is now important to see how the criminal law mechanisms work", Lars Mortsiefer, the head of Germany's National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA), said ahead of the trial.
- Caught red-handed -
The sports doctor was one of several arrested in Germany as part of Operation "Aderlass" -- or "blood letting" in German -- which involved raids at the Nordic world skiing championships in Seefeld, Austria in February 2019.
Two hours before the start of the men's 15km cross-country event, five athletes and two suspects were detained at the venue.
One Austrian athlete was caught undergoing a blood transfusion.
During the course of the investigation, senior prosecutor Kai Graeber said a "terrific" amount of evidence was uncovered and around 30 witnesses are expected to testify.
Blood doping is aimed at boosting the number of red blood cells, which allows the body to transport more oxygen to muscles, thereby increasing stamina and performance.
Schmidt is alleged to have helped skiers who competed at both the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics and cyclists who raced at the 2016 Rio summer Olympics, as well as the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana.
As part of Aderlass, Austrian cyclist Georg Preidler was given a 12-month suspended sentence for sports fraud by a court in Innsbruck in July.
Among others, Austrian cross-country skier Johannes Duerr, whose doping confessions in a documentary aired by German broadcaster ARD helped trigger Aderlass, was given a 15-month suspended sentence for doping in January.