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Arrest warrant reveals Russian infiltration in Austria

The logo of payment company Wirecard is pictured at the headquarters in Munich, Germany on July 20, 2020.
The logo of payment company Wirecard is pictured at the headquarters in Munich, Germany on July 20, 2020. Copyright Matthias Schrader/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Matthias Schrader/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved.
By AP
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An arrest warrant for an Austrian suspect alleges that he handed over mobile data of former high-ranking officials to Russian intelligence.

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Austria is facing its biggest espionage scandal in decades as the arrest of a former intelligence officer brings to light evidence of extensive Russian infiltration. 

The suspect in question is Egisto Ott, who was arrested March 29. The 86-page warrant for his arrest, which was obtained by the Associated Press, alleges among other things that he handed over mobile phone data of former high-ranking Austrian officials to Russian intelligence. He helped plot a burglary at a prominent journalist's apartment, and wrote up “suggestions for improvement” after a Russian-ordered killing in Germany.

Ott is also suspected of having provided sensitive information to Jan Marsalek, a fugitive fellow Austrian wanted on suspicion of fraud since the collapse in 2020 of German payment company Wirecard, where he was the chief operating officer.

The warrant says messages provided by British authorities link Marsalek directly to the Russian intelligence agency FSB.

German and Austrian media have reported that Marsalek is believed to have had connections to Russian intelligence since at least 2014. He is thought to be in Russia.

Thomas Riegler, a historian and espionage expert affiliated with the Austrian Centre for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies, said the case has the potential to be "one of the biggest espionage stories in recent Austrian history”.

“The case is special given its international dimension and the fact that it is not only about espionage but also about the infiltration of the Austrian political system and the weakening of the country’s internal security,” he said.

Austria, which was located next to the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and long had good connections with Moscow, is an EU member with a policy of military neutrality – and a longstanding reputation as an espionage hotspot.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer has convened a meeting of the National Security Council for Tuesday. He says the country needs to boost its security to thwart Russian infiltration.

Nehammer's justice minister said she plans to tighten the country's espionage laws. As things stand, spying is explicitly banned if directed against Austria itself, but not if it targets other countries or the many international organisations Vienna hosts.

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