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Muddy waters in #Firtash case give Vienna pause

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In the latest twist in an already bizarre saga, one which has roped in Russiagate theorists and pitted a former Austrian minister against US prosecutors, Austria’s caretaker government approved the extradition of Ukrainian oligarch Dimitri Firtash to the United States— just as a Vienna judge ruled to halt Firtash’s extradition.

Firtash—who stands accused by a Chicago court of having been involved in a criminal conspiracy to pay bribes in India in order to mine titanium—has already been stuck in Austria, fighting extradition, since he was first arrested on a US warrant in March 2014.

He now seems likely to remain in Austria for a while yet: the latest delay to his extradition comes after Firtash’s defence team, led by former Austrian justice minister Dieter Boehmdorfer, submitted “extremely extensive material” which Boehmdorfer believes will prove that the US has “a far-reaching political motivation” in seeking Firtash.

Longstanding rumours about Washington’s motivations

Indeed, suspicions that the US has ulterior motives in indicting Firtash have clouded the five-year-long case from the start. To start with, Firtash’s profile alone would make him naturally of interest to American law enforcement agencies and politicians. A supporter of Ukraine’s ousted, pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych, Firtash has extensive connections among Ukrainian and Russian elites

As early as 2015, the original Austrian judge in charge of the case suspected that it was these connections and Firtash’s place on the inside track of Ukrainian politics, rather than any involvement with a bribery scandal, which had piqued Washington’s interest. In an extremely rare step between Western allies—one which was later overturned by higher courts— Judge Christoph Bauer, of the Landesgerichtsstrasse Regional Court in Vienna, ruled against Firtash’s extradition to the United States.

Bauer’s justification for his decision constituted a remarkably scathing rebuke of the US Justice and State Departments. The judge explained that he did not merely doubt the veracity of two witnesses cited by American prosecutors in their filings that he doubted, but “whether these witnesses even existed.”

Arrest when convenient

What’s more, Bauer questioned why US prosecutors had sat on the Firtash indictment for close to a year. The Austrian judge suspected that the delay had something to do with the Ukrainian’s close relationship with then president Yanukovych. Pointing to documents showing that Washington initially asked Vienna to arrest Firtash in the fall of 2013, Bauer noted that, in parallel, Yanukovych was waffling on signing the association agreement with the European Union.

According to Bauer, indications that Yanukovych was being swayed back around to the West led to the arrest being put on hold. Viennese authorities received an urgent, cryptic message days before the arrest was scheduled to take place, reading “As part of a larger strategy, US authorities have determined we need to pass up this opportunity”.

A valuable source?

Yanukovych, of course, did not sign the agreement in the end, and was eventually forced into exile after months of protests. Four days after Yanukovych was deposed, the US authorities resurrected their request for Firtash to be arrested: the Ukrainian was finally taken into custody just as open conflict was breaking out in Ukraine between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions.

There’s always been speculation, however, that Firtash was more than just a bargaining chip in a tussle with Moscow over Yanukovych’s loyalties. As early as 2014, one American insider suggested to the BBC that US prosecutors wanted Firtash for the sensitive information he held regarding Russian and Ukrainian elites. "He knows a whole lot of things about the elites in Russia and Ukraine," the anonymous source explained, "it would be great to have this man talking."

These rumours now appear to have borne fruit, as reports have surfaced that special counsel Robert Mueller’s chief deputy Andrew Weissmann reached out to Firtash’s lawyers in June 2017 with a new deal: shed some light on Russiagate, and the criminal charges Firtash faced in the US might go away. Firtash turned the deal down—according to his lawyers, because he didn’t have information on the subjects Weissman was interested in.

Clouds gather over Exhibit A

The revelation that US prosecutors proffered such a deal seems to confirm the longstanding theory that Washington had political reasons for wanting Firtash on American soil. As Bauer noted when initially nixing the extradition, Austria would have grounds to reject a politically-motivated extradition request “even if a crime occurred”.

Over the past few weeks, troubling questions have also arisen over the file US prosecutors put together to argue that Firtash did in fact commit a crime. Back in 2014, just as the case against Firtash was faltering in Bauer’s court, the Austrian Ministry of Justice received a fresh piece of evidence, dubbed Exhibit A. Exhibit A consisted of a single PowerPoint slide from 2006, which mentioned the “use of bribes” in conjunction with a “2-part India Strategy”.

Prosecutors held the PowerPoint slide out as the smoking gun that Firtash himself had advocated for the use of bribes. More recently, however, it’s become clear that the slide was written not by Firtash, nor by any of his companies, but by American consulting firm McKinsey.

Case in limbo

Firtash’s American legal team have, predictably, been quick to point to the Exhibit A debacle as evidence of less-than-clean intentions on Washington’s part. "Submitting a false and misleading document to a foreign sovereign and its courts for an extradition decision is not only unethical,” the team wrote to investigative journalist John Solomon, “but also flouts the comity of trust necessary for that process where judicial systems rely only on documents to make that decision."

With a key piece of evidence collapsing and two witnesses who’ve recently recanted their testimony, the waters surrounding the Firtash case are muddier than ever. Given the fresh furore, it’s not surprising that Vienna wants more time to make sure Austria’s legal system is not blindly doing Washington’s bidding.

 

Austria

Austrian far-right leader quits, leaving succession open

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The leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPO) Norbert Hofer (pictured) stepped down on Tuesday but pointedly did not back his high-profile deputy and rival Herbert Kickl to succeed him.

Hofer, widely seen as the most likeable face of the anti-Islam and anti-immigration party that crashed out of government amid scandal two years ago, came close to winning Austria's presidential election in 2016 only to lose a re-run.

He took over as leader from Heinz-Christian Strache after a video sting scandal in 2019 forced Strache to quit as Austrian vice chancellor and brought down a coalition government led by conservative Sebastian Kurz, who now governs with the Greens.

"In the past months it has been possible to stabilise the party again and bring it close to the 20% mark in opinion polls. I have thus set up the party so that it can be successful in the coming years as well. My own journey at the head of the FPO, however, ends today," Hofer said in a statement by the party.

The statement did not say why Hofer, 50, was quitting but referred to recent treatment for back problems. He has walked with a cane since a paragliding accident in 2003.

There have been several reports in the Austrian media of a rift with Kickl, a more abrasive figure who takes a harder line on opposing coronavirus restrictions and attacking Kurz.

His announcement still stunned the party that has long been running third in polls behind Kurz's conservatives and the opposition Social Democrats.

"I was surprised by the events of the day," party heavyweight Manfred Haimbuchner, FPO leader the province of Upper Austria, said in a statement.

On the next leader, Hofer's statement said only: "I wish my successor in this post good luck for the future."

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Austria

Austria's Kurz expects to be charged but cleared in perjury case

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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (pictured) expects to be charged but eventually cleared in an investigation into whether he gave false testimony to a parliamentary commission, he told Sunday newspapers, ruling out the idea of resigning if indicted.

The investigation by anti-corruption prosecutors, made public, last week poses a stiff political challenge for the conservative Kurz, 34, who governs in coalition with the Greens.

Kurz has painted himself as the victim of opposition parties trying to trap him into saying something that could be construed as perjury before the commission, which is looking into possible corruption under his previous coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) which collapsed in 2019. read more

"After every word of mine on 58 pages (of testimony) is put on the scale, I certainly expect a criminal complaint, that's right," he told the Krone newspaper in an interview, adding he had not yet been questioned by prosecutors.

But he said he was confident he would be exonerated in the case, which centres on whether he answered truthfully when asked about appointments to state holding company OBAG.

"I have spoken to numerous lawyers and several university professors. The tenor was always the same: no one can imagine that there will be a conviction here," he told the paper.

In a separate interview with the Oesterreich paper, he rejected the idea of stepping down if indicted.

"I definitely rule that out. Like many people, I have made many mistakes, both privately and professionally. But what I definitely know is that I went into the commission with the intention of answering the questions truthfully," he said.

An opinion poll published by Oesterreich showed Kurz's conservatives winning 35% support should parliamentary elections be held now, down 1 point from a week earlier and 2.5 points from its showing in 2019 elections.

Its Greens partners were on 12%, in fourth place behind the Social Democrats on 22% and the FPO at 17%.

The commission has looked into the appointment in 2019 of a conservative loyalist as chief executive of OBAG, which manages Austria's stakes in companies including oil firm OMV. Text messages examined by the commission showed Kurz telling the candidate before then he would get "everything you want".

The investigation is looking at whether Kurz discussed the appointment with the candidate beforehand and whether the chancellor was involved in selecting members of OBAG's supervisory board, both of which Kurz denied at the commission.

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Austria

Israel’s flag risen on the roof of Austria’s chancellery in sign of solidarity

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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz flies an Israeli flag on the roof of the chancellery building in Vienna in a mark of solidarity with the State of Israel, amid the conflict between Israel and Hamas, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.

“The terrorist attacks on Israel are deserving of the strongest condemnation. Together we stand by Israel’s side.”

‘’Today, as a sign of solidarity with Israel, the Israeli flag was raised on the roof of the Federal Chancellery. The terrorist attacks on Israel are to be condemned in the strongest possible terms! Together we stand by Israel’s side,’’ Kurz tweeted on Friday.

Earlier this week, the Austrian leader said: ‘’I strongly condemn the rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip. Israel has the right to defend itself against them. I hope that there will be a de-escalation and that these attacks will stop with immediate effect.‘‘

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