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Austrian court convicts mystery former colonel of ‘spying for Russia’ – then sets him free

Austrian court convicts mystery former colonel of ‘spying for Russia’ – then sets him free
A year after the "Ibiza Affair" brought down a government in Vienna, Austria has sentenced an unnamed retired Army colonel to three years in prison on charges of being a spy for Russia.

Peter Egger, a spokesman for the court in Salzburg, confirmed the sentence to reporters on Tuesday, but did not disclose the officer’s identity. The colonel was first arrested in 2018, with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz personally alleging that the accused had spied for Russia for at least 25 years, since 1992. Later Egger disclosed that the defendant was actually released on parole, after the 18 months served in pre-trial confinement counted towards his sentence.

This might change if the prosecutors appeal the sentence, Egger added. They have three days to do so.

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Vienna initially said the case was brought to its attention by a "friendly" intelligence agency of another country, later revealed to be Britain.

The conviction follows a couple of years where Russia has been in the news in Austria. The spy scandal came after Kurz refused to expel any Russian diplomats as part of a mass purge initiated by the UK, following the alleged “chemical attack” on Russia-born British agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018, for which London blamed Moscow but never presented evidence.

A year later came the "Ibiza Affair," a political scandal involving Heinz-Christian Strache, the nationalist former Austrian vice chancellor and his Freedom Party colleague (FPÖ) Johann Gudenus, who were in a coalition government with Kurz's People's Party. The slick sting operation saw the pair meet a woman who they thought was the daughter of a ‘Russian oligarch’ and discuss potential cooperation. It was later revealed that she was a Bosnian student.

The trap was well organised, and professionally executed, with considerable time and money invested in the process. It was made public just a few days before the European Parliament election in May 2019. Strache and Gudenus both left politics after the furore.

It's worth noting that no Russian interests were involved in the story. The 'Russian' was a decoy and the meeting was a set-up. Strache expressed a desire to get Russian cash, but none was given or offered. Afterwards, he described it as “a honey trap stage-managed by intelligence agencies.”

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Austria has since issued an international arrest warrant for Igor Zaitsev, whom they described as a high-ranking Russian intelligence officer who allegedly recruited the mystery colonel. The Russian government has denied this.

Kurz won the snap election in September 2019 and has served as chancellor since January 2020, this time in coalition with the Green Party rather than with Strache’s FPO, which the EU establishment has denounced as “pro-Russian.”

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