Austria’s far-right former vice chancellor convicted of corruption

A Vienna court on Friday convicted former Austrian far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache on a corruption charge in a case stemming from a 2019 scandal known as “Ibizagate.”

Strache, one of the most prominent former far-right leaders in Europe, received a 15-month suspended jail sentence.

The Ibizagate scandal led to Strache resigning as vice chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

The affair toppled the coalition between the FPOe and the center-right People’s Party (OeVP) of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and sparked new elections in the Alpine EU member.

The scandal erupted when video footage emerged of Strache promising public contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch in exchange for support for the FPOe’s 2017 election campaign.

The video, which was secretly filmed on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza, led to an extensive investigation by anti-corruption prosecutors that revealed several other allegations of wrongdoing against Strache and other prominent politicians.

Acquitted on the second count

In the current trial, Strache, 52, was convicted of helping change a law to help an FPOe donor friend secure public funds for his private hospital.

Strache’s co-defendant, Walter Grubmueller, an old friend and owner of a private health clinic, was also found guilty and received a 12-month suspended sentence.

Judge Claudia Moravec-Loidolt said Strache had been acquitted of a second count of receiving favors in the form of a trip to the Greek island of Corfu at the invitation of Grubmueller.

Strache had protested his innocence throughout the trial.

Prosecutor Bernhard Weratschnig said in his closing argument that public office holders must remain above even the perception of corruption and that the “advantages” Strache received were “indisputable”.

“Every euro is an extra euro,” he said.

According to an SMS exchange discovered by prosecutors, Strache had asked Grubmueller what amendments to the legislation would be necessary for Grubmueller’s clinic to “finally be treated fairly.”

During Strache’s time in office, the law was amended to allow clinics like Grubmueller’s to receive money from the public health insurance fund.

Strache has also been accused of embezzling party funds to pay for his lavish lifestyle during the 14 years he ran the FPOe, although he has not been charged for this.

Kurz returned to the chancellery after the scandal, this time at the head of a coalition between his OeVP and the Greens, and has so far managed to avoid any serious political damage from “Ibizagate”.

The OeVP was even able to win many disgruntled FPOe voters in the 2019 polls.

But in May, prosecutors announced they were investigating the 35-year-old man on suspicion of giving false testimony to a committee of lawmakers investigating “Ibizagate” and other corruption allegations.

Kurz has denied the accusation and has insisted that he will not give in to pressure to resign, even if he is formally charged.

Internal struggle party

The FPOe’s vote share fell from 26 percent in 2017 to just 16 percent in 2019.

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

In June, Strache’s successor as leader, Norbert Hofer, resigned after weeks of tension with his party colleague and former interior minister, Herbert Kickl.

Kickl, considered a party ideologue and mastermind of some of its anti-Islam and anti-immigrant campaigns, took over as leader.

Meanwhile, Strache attempted a political comeback last year with a run for mayor of Vienna, but his list garnered just three percent of the vote in municipal elections.

(AFP)

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