“This case is a gross violation of the basic principles of justice,” Robert Amsterdam from Amsterdam and Partners law firm told The Local. “It’s the only case we can find where charges such as this have been brought against an individual,” he added.
In late February, Austria’s highest court upheld the judgement of a lower court that sentenced Templ to three years in prison – for what can at best be described as failing to comply with a bureaucratic request.
Judges declared that he had tried to enrich himself by deliberately omitting to name his estranged aunt, who also owned a share of the property, in his mother’s restitution claim.
However, Amsterdam told The Local that he wouldn’t have taken on the case if he didn’t believe that there was something darker behind the judge’s decision.
“If you read the court transcripts and see how many times they referred to Templ as greedy… this is really a very serious case and it’s quite odious when you look back at Austria’s history,” he said.
Templ, an Austrian journalist, wrote a book revealing the extent to which the Austrians were among the first Nazi profiteers to expropriate property from Vienna’s large Jewish population after Hitler annexed the country in 1938.
One of the victims of the Vienna Nazis’ property-stealing was Templ’s grandmother. She was the part-owner of a large private sanatorium for wealthy Jews. After Hitler’s arrival, the Nazis confiscated the building.
After the war, Austria was slow in returning the sanatorium to its rightful owners. It was only after the signing of an agreement between Austria and the US in 2000 that Austria conceded that it had a moral responsibility to hand back property stolen by the Nazis.
Mr Templ’s mother, Helene, who is an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor, then became the rightful heir to a family share in the sanatorium.
Mr Templ applied for restitution on his mother’s behalf in 2005. He was successful and his mother later managed to sell her share of the building.
Mr Templ thought the matter had been concluded. But then in January 2013 he discovered that he had been indicted by prosecutors on charges of defrauding the Austrian Republic.
Vienna’s criminal court upheld the charges against him and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment.
The judge ruled he had tried to “unlawfully enrich himself”, that he was “greedy” and that he wanted “the highest amount of money for himself” regarding his mother’s restitution case.
Mr Templ, who lives in Prague, has said that he feels he is being punished for the things he wrote in his book, which upset the authorities, and that the verdict was also an attempt to deter others from claiming restitution from the state.
His alleged crime was based on a ruling by the Austrian courts whose validity is being examined by the European Court of Human Rights.
The judges argued that by failing to mention his aunt, his mother’s share was double what it should have been as it included what could have been the aunt’s stake in the building.
However they concluded that it was not the aunt who was the victim but the Austrian state which was technically the owner of the property at the time of its restitution. The judges ruled that Mr Templ had therefore tried to defraud the state.
Mr Templ’s lawyers argue the Austrian state cannot claim a property which was acknowledged to have been stolen and has since been returned to the heirs of the rightful owners. They maintain the state cannot therefore claim to be the injured party.