Vienna gang arrested for extorting bar owners

Eight members of a criminal gang suspected of extorting as much as half a million euros over three years from bar owners in Vienna have been arrested.

Vienna gang arrested for extorting bar owners

The months long investigation into the gang came to a dramatic conclusion early in the morning on March 22nd when the homes of the suspects were stormed and they were arrested.

The defendants – who all deny the accusations – include seven men and one woman aged between 23 and 38-years-old.

They are accused of threatening to hurt the owners of several bars and one mobile phone shop in Vienna unless they hired the gang members as bouncers of their establishments, paying them a salary that went into the gang’s coffers.

The new ‘security guards’ were paid a hundreds of euros for the ‘protection’ and in some cases between €10,000 and €100,000, according to the head of the office for organised crime Andreas Holzer. Demands were even made from one victim for €1.5 million.

The gang, who mainly targeted businesses on Ottakringer Straße and Märzstraße, reportedly spent the money on fancy cars, luxury items and expensive clothing brands.

Some business owners were so intimidated they sold their bars rather than have to deal with the criminals. Others had their cars set on fire and received notes saying “next time, your house will burn”.

The extortion scheme is thought to have been operating since 2013 but only came to the police’s attention in Autumn 2015 when a group of business owners rallied together to file a joint complaint.

Authorities believe the alleged main suspect – 37-year-old Edin D. – may also be connected to the shooting dead of a customer in the Cafe Cappuccino in Ottakringer Straße in 2006, which became known as the 'Cappuccino murder'.

Authorities are calling for anyone who thinks they may be a victim of the gang to contact the Federal Office of Crime (01/24836 985025) with details. A witness protection programme is available. 

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Austrian people smuggler jailed over deaths of Syrians in minivan

An Austrian court on Monday sentenced a people smuggler to seven years in prison over the deaths of two Syrians who suffocated in the crammed minivan he was driving, Austria's news agency reported.

Austrian people smuggler jailed over deaths of Syrians in minivan

The bodies of the two men were discovered last October when Austrian authorities stopped and searched a van at the border with Hungary.

Thirty people in total were crammed in the vehicle, whose driver fled the scene but was later arrested in Latvia and extradited.

The 19-year-old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and causing fatal injuries, but was not found guilty of murder, APA reported.

READ MORE: Austrian police warn public about new ‘fake cops’ scam

He said he would accept the verdict, but the prosecution can still appeal it, APA said.

A court spokeswoman could not immediately be reached by AFP. 

Austria’s interior ministry announced in May that police had smashed a group believed to have smuggled tens of thousands of mostly Syrians, including the two found suffocated, from Hungary to Austria.

A total of 205 people suspected to be linked to the group have been arrested in central and eastern Europe, the ministry said.

Those smuggled, including children, were trying to reach western European countries, including Germany and France.

The October discovery of the dead men recalled a dire event in August 2015 when 71 people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan suffocated in the back of an air-tight van where they had been hidden by people smugglers.

The bodies, including those of three children and a baby, were discovered in Austria but they had died while still on the other side of the border.

Almost four years later, the Hungarian courts sentenced their smugglers to life imprisonment.

The emotion aroused by that tragedy triggered a brief opening of the borders to hundreds of thousands of people wishing to reach Western Europe.

But Austria and other European countries have since fortified borders to stop people smuggling.