NGOs condemn trial in Austria of ‘Ibizagate’ whistleblower

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

In an open letter, 15 Austrian and international organisations said the trial of Julian Hessenthaler, which is due to start on Wednesday, was based on “partially constructed accusations used to discredit and apprehend” him.

Austria’s former vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was convicted last week on corruption charges relating to the May 2019 scandal, which ended the coalition of his far-right Freedom party (FPÖ) and the People’s party (ÖVP) of the chancellor, Sebastian Kurz.

The affair dates back to a meeting in 2017 in Ibiza between Strache and a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, to whom he promised state contracts in return 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 steering its editorial line more towards the party’s anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform.

Strache, who was unaware that the meeting was a string and that he was being filmed, resigned along with his parliamentary leader, Johann Gudenus, after the German weekly Der Spiegel and the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung published 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, allege the 15 NGOs, which include Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, the Centre for Investigative Journalism and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Publication of the video, made possible by Julian Hessenthaler, initiated a discussion of great public interest and allowed the public to form an opinion about Strache’s suitability to hold public office,” said Heinz Patzelt, the secretary general of Amnesty International Austria.

A judicial investigation launched after the video was released led to no fewer than 12 separate inquiries into allegations of wrongdoing by Strache and others. Kurz is also under investigation for alleged false statements to a parliamentary committee over the affair. He says he has always answered questions truthfully.

Thomas Lohninger, the executive director of epicenter.works, an Austrian digital rights NGO which has helped coordinate the campaign, said the video’s publication was protected under the freedom of expression laws in Austrian and Germany.

He said: “There is a strong sense that Austrian authorities are resorting to other criminal charges, or at least to prosecuting them in an excessive manner, to silence Hessenthaler. Apparently, he is being made an example of to deter potential future informers from expressing their opinion freely.”

Multiple European investigation orders were executed against Hessenthaler, allowing extensive physical surveillance, access to bank accounts, home searches, telephone surveillance and the retrieval of passenger name records from airlines.

He also faces charges of falsifying documents relating to the video, as well as drug charges based on conflicting testimony from a convicted dealer who was released from prison after speaking to investigators, while initial investigations into his case were led by a civil servant with close associations to Strache, the NGOs said, citing legal documents and media reporting.

“Whether he committed the document- and drug-related offences he is now charged with must 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 alleged: “Those who bring too much truth to light will face criminal investigation, if necessary across international borders. This inevitably acts as a deterrent that discourages other whistleblowers from making revelations and can ultimately limit freedom of opinion and the press in Austria.”

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