Wednesday, December 8

NGOs condemn the trial in Austria of the whistleblower of ‘Ibizagate’ | Austria


The “excessive” criminal prosecution of a security consultant whose “Ibizagate” video brought down the Austrian government will deter whistleblowers and risks infringing on fundamental press and information freedoms, human rights groups have said.

In an open letter, 15 Austrian and international organizations said that Julian Hessenthaler’s trial, which is due to begin on Wednesday, was based on “partially constructed indictments used to discredit and apprehend him.”

Former Vice Chancellor of Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache, was convicted last week on corruption charges related to the May 2019 scandal, which ended the coalition of his far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party (ÖVP).

The affair dates back to a 2017 meeting in Ibiza between Strache and a woman who was allegedly the niece of a Russian oligarch, to whom he promised state contracts in exchange for help in his election campaign.

The then FPÖ leader also discussed the possibility of the woman buying Austria’s most popular tabloid newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, and directing her editorial line more towards the party’s anti-Islam and anti-immigration platform.

Strache, unaware that the meeting was a rope and that it was being filmed, resigned along with his parliamentary leader, Johann Gudenus, after the German weekly Der Spiegel and the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung posted the video on their websites.

The “remarkable” prosecution of Hessenthaler, who was arrested in Germany late last year and extradited to Austria, aims to send “a clear signal” to future whistleblowers, the 15 NGOs, including Reporters Without Borders, allege. , Amnesty International, the Center for Investigative Journalism and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“The release of the video, made possible by Julian Hessenthaler, started a debate of great public interest and allowed the public to form an opinion on Strache’s suitability for public office,” said Heinz Patzelt, Secretary General of Amnesty International Austria.

A judicial investigation launched after the video was posted led to no fewer than 12 separate investigations into allegations of wrongdoing by Strache and others. Kurz is also being investigated for alleged false statements to a parliamentary committee on the matter. He says he has always answered questions honestly.

Julian Hessenthaler mugshot
Julian Hessenthaler. Photograph: Austrian Police

Thomas Lohninger, CEO of epicenter.works, an Austrian digital rights NGO that helped coordinate the campaign, said the video’s release was protected by free speech laws in Austria and Germany.

He said: “There is a strong sense that the Austrian authorities are resorting to other criminal charges, or at least over-prosecuting them, to silence Hessenthaler. Apparently, he is being used as an example to dissuade potential future informants from expressing their opinion freely. “

Multiple European investigation warrants were executed against Hessenthaler, allowing extensive physical surveillance, access to bank accounts, house searches, telephone surveillance, and the retrieval of airline passenger name records.

He also faces charges of falsifying documents related to the video, as well as drug charges based on the conflicting testimony of a convicted trafficker who was released from prison after speaking with investigators, while initial investigations into his case were conducted. by a public official with close associations. to Strache, the NGOs said, citing legal documents and media reports.

“If you committed the document and drug offenses you are now charged with, it should be resolved in a court of law,” Lohninger said. “However, the intensity and resources used to investigate Julian Hessenthaler, who is entitled to the presumption of innocence, are remarkable.”

The signal was clear, Lohninger claimed: “Those who expose too much truth will face a criminal investigation, if necessary, across international borders. This inevitably acts as a deterrent that discourages other whistleblowers from making disclosures and may ultimately limit freedom of opinion and of the press in Austria. “


www.theguardian.com

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