Spy scandal revives fears of Austrian exposure to Russia

Spy scandal revives fears of Austrian exposure to Russia
Spy scandal revives fears of Austrian exposure to Russia

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - VIENNA — It is being called Austria's biggest espionage scandal for decades, which began with the arrest of a former domestic security official and has led to a raft of allegations and accusations.

Egisto Ott, 61, was detained at the end of March on suspicion of spying for Russia.

According to an 86-page Austrian police warrant, obtained by Austrian and German media, Ott is suspected of passing information to Jan Marsalek, the fugitive executive of collapsed German payments firm Wirecard.

Marsalek, 44 and also an Austrian citizen, is wanted by German police for alleged fraud and is currently believed to be in Moscow, having fled via Austria in 2020.

A recent report by a group of European newspapers said he was recruited by Russian agents in 2014.

The Austrian police warrant reportedly alleges that the former Wirecard boss commissioned Egisto Ott and another Austrian security officer to pass on sensitive information to Russia for several years, from 2017.

Ott denies any wrongdoing, and he is currently in custody. He was suspended in 2017 and then detained four years later before being released. He was arrested at the end of last month after new evidence was supplied by British intelligence.

He is suspected, reports say, of having passed phone data from senior Austrian interior ministry officials to Russia.

Austria's Standard newspaper says Egisto Ott apparently obtained the phones after they accidentally fell into the Danube on an interior ministry boating trip. He is alleged to have copied their contents and passed them on to Jan Marsalek, and Moscow.

He is also suspected of obtaining under false pretenses the Vienna address of Bulgarian journalist Christo Grozev.

Grozev is known for investigations into Russian intelligence activities such as the 2022 poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian prison in the Arctic Circle this year.

Christo Grozev has since left Vienna. He told the newspaper Falter that he did so for security reasons.

Austria's Chancellor, Karl Nehammer, has described the Egisto Ott case as "a threat to democracy and our country's national security". He's called for a swift investigation into the affair.

The spy scandal has revived fears that Austria remains a hotbed of Russian espionage activity.

Austria's Green Party, the junior party in the ruling coalition, has called Egisto Ott "the tip of the Russian iceberg" in Austria.

The Greens have accused the far-right Freedom Party of enabling Russian espionage, of acting as "an extension of Russia's arm" in Austria.

The Freedom Party (FPÖ) is now in opposition but leader Herbert Kickl was interior minister from 2017 to 2019.

"We have the potential infiltration of our secret services by Russian agents. This is very, very serious and the Freedom Party and... Kickl are directly linked to it," said Greens parliamentary leader Sigrid Maurer.

Kickl and the Freedom Party have denied all allegations related to Jan Marsalek and Egisto Ott.

The Freedom Party opposes EU sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. In the past, it struck a co-operation agreement with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

It is currently leading in the opinion polls and Austria is due to hold parliamentary elections this year.

Several parties have called for a parliamentary committee to investigate the affair, including the Freedom Party.

In a statement, Kickl said it would be "in the interest of actual clarification instead of an election campaign show". — BBC

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