Corruption trial begins for Austria’s former far-right leader

Austria's former vice-chancellor and longtime leader of the far-right Freedom Party went on trial for alleged corruption on Tuesday, in a case linked to a scandal that brought down the government.

Corruption trial begins for Austria's former far-right leader
Austria's former Vice-Chancellor and disgraced former leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

Heinz-Christian Strache, one of Europe’s most high-profile far-right leaders, was forced to resign as vice-chancellor in 2019 after a video was published showing him offering public contracts in return for electoral campaign support from a woman posing as a Russian investor.

The scandal, dubbed “Ibiza-gate” as the video was secretly filmed on the Spanish party island, spawned a sweeping corruption investigation which uncovered several different accusations of wrongdoing.

‘Ibizagate’: What you need to know about the corruption scandal which continues to grip Austrian politics

A prosecutor laid out the charges at the beginning of Tuesday’s proceedings, saying that what Strache said in the Ibiza-gate tapes was “burned into the collective memory”.

Strache arrived at the court in Vienna wearing a mask and a dark suit, refusing to comment to journalists covering the trial.

The 52-year-old struck a combative figure as he sat in the dock, taking copious notes as the prosecutor spoke. 

Leaked messages

The trial concerns charges that Strache helped change a law for a Freedom Party (FPOe) donor when he was in a coalition government with the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

The donor, Walter Grubmueller, owns a private clinic in Vienna and told a parliamentary committee that he had invited Strache aboard his yacht and on a vacation at his holiday home on the Greek island of Corfu in 2016.

While negotiating the coalition agreement with the OeVP, Strache directly asked the clinic owner “which amendment to the law” he would need for his “clinic to finally be treated in a fair manner”, according to chat messages uncovered in the investigation which were leaked to the media.

In the messages, the donor reportedly said that he would deliver a draft law to the FPOe’s party headquarters.

After Strache took office in 2017, the far-right took charge of the health ministry and went on to oversee a change in the law that widened the category of establishments eligible for public funding.

According to expert estimates, this means clinics like Grubmueller’s were allowed to apply for as much as 2.2 million euros ($2.6 million) in funding in 2019 alone.

Grubmueller is also standing trial alongside Strache, but denies any wrongdoing or that he profited from the amendment.

When the “Ibiza-gate” footage emerged in 2019, the coalition between the Freedom Party and the People’s Party collapsed.

In the video, Strache claimed that several high-profile billionaires and international gambling company Novomatic had been funding political parties through off-the-books donations to associations, some owned by high-ranking OeVP politicians.

All those named by Strache deny any wrongdoing. The claims triggered an array of investigations, including a probe into the appointment of Thomas Schmid — a civil servant and Kurz ally — as head of the Austrian state holding company OeBAG.

Kurz told a parliamentary committee that he had no hand in the appointment, but leaked chat messages have suggested otherwise.

Prosecutors have now put him under investigation for the possible offence of making false statements to the committee.

Far-right infighting

Kurz, who returned as chancellor after a snap 2019 election, denies the allegation. If he is indicted, he faces going on trial for an offence which can be punished by a prison sentence of up to three years.

Since Strache resigned after 14 years at the helm of the Freedom Party, he has also been accused of embezzling party funds to pay for his luxurious lifestyle.

The revelations disillusioned many of the party’s voters, and the FPOe slumped from 26 percent of the vote in the 2017 general election to 16 percent in 2019.

Last year Strache attempted a comeback with a bid to be Vienna’s mayor, but his list won just three percent of the vote.

The FPOe has spent much of the time since the scandal consumed by infighting.

Last month Strache’s successor as leader, Norbert Hofer, resigned after weeks of tension with party colleague and former Interior Minister Herbert Kickl.

Kickl, seen as a party ideologue and mastermind of some of its anti-Islam and anti-migrant campaigns, swiftly took over as leader. 

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Romania recalls Austria envoy after Schengen veto

Romania on Friday recalled its ambassador to Austria, a day after Vienna sparked anger by vetoing Bucharest's bid to join the Schengen zone free of border checks.

Romania recalls Austria envoy after Schengen veto

The Eastern European country with a population of 19 million joined the European Union in 2007 and had high hopes of integration into the vast zone of free movement after waiting for more than 10 years.

On Friday, Romania’s foreign ministry said diplomat Emil Hurezeanu “has been recalled [to Bucharest] for consultations”. It was a “political gesture” indicating “a decision to decrease the current level of relations” with Austria, the ministry said.

READ ALSO: ‘A stupid prank’?: Why has Austria vetoed enlargement of Schengen area?

Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca had expressed “deep disappointment” over Austria’s decision to block the country’s decade-plus long bid.

Romanian foreign minister Bogdan Aurescu then summoned Austria’s ambassador to protest what he called “an unjustified and unfriendly attitude” which would have “consequences on bilateral relations”.

Austria thwarted the hopes of both Bucharest and Sofia, justifying the vetoes over an influx of asylum seekers that it said could grow if the Schengen zone expanded.

Bucharest said Vienna’s stance was based on “incorrect” figures, since migratory flows “do not pass through Romania”.

Meanwhile, calls to boycott Austrian companies have grown louder, with Romania’s tourism ministry saying skiing holidays should be taken in  destinations such as France, rather than Austria.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Austria?

A demonstration is also planned in the Romanian capital.

As a leading economic trading partner, Austria represents “the second largest foreign investor” in Romania, the foreign ministry said.

A large amount of Romanian citizens and businesses have Austrian bank accounts. Austrian oil and gas group OMV as well as HS Timber also have a big presence in Romania.