Far-Right Austrian leader goes on trial on corruption charges

Heinz-Christian Strache, the far-Right former Austrian vice-chancellor, went on trial on Tuesday on corruption charges that could see him jailed for five years.

It is the first prosecution to result from the so-called Ibizagate scandal that brought down the Austrian government in 2019 and ended Mr Strache’s political career.

Lawyers for the former leader of the far-Right Freedom Party (FPÖ) said he would plead not guilty to charges of accepting a bribe to channel public funding to a private hospital.

Mr Strache was the first of a generation of European far-Right leaders to win power when he took the Freedom Party into coalition under the chancellorship of Sebastian Kurz in 2017.

But he was forced to resign in disgrace when secretly filmed video of him meeting with a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s daughter at a villa on Ibiza was released in 2019.

In the recording, Mr Strache appeared to offer the woman Austrian government contracts in exchange for help winning the election, and apparently to hint at illegal donations.

The charges against Mr Strache came to light in the course of criminal investigations prompted by the video. He is accused of accepting bribes from Walter Grubmüller, an Austrian businessman, to channel public funds to a private hospital.

In 2018, while Mr Strache was vice-chancellor, the law was changed to make it easier for private hospitals to treat patients under the public health insurance scheme.

Prosecutors allege he accepted a €10,000 (£8,500) donation to the Freedom Party and personal bribes in the form of a holiday at Mr Grubmüller’s villa in Corfu in exchange for arranging for the law to be changed.

Mr Grubmüller went on trial alongside Mr Strache on Tuesday on charges of bribery and corruption. Both men deny the charges. 

Mr Strache’s lawyer claimed he had paid for the holiday to Corfu and said he would present receipts as evidence.

Mr Strache and co-defendant Walter Grubmuller

Credit: HERBERT NEUBAUER/
AFP

He said he would present an SMS from Mr Strache in which he appeared to reject the offer of a free trip with the words: “Doesn’t work. Good bill, good friendship.”

The prosecution said it would present records of an online chat showing Mr Strache urged Mr Grubmüller to silence with the words: “Say nothing. Soft and quiet.”

Mr Grubmüller’s lawyer said his client had made the donation to the Freedom Party out of anger at rival parties, and not in order to secure special treatment.

He said Mr Grubmüller had never lobbied for the law on private hospitals to be changed, but had only campaigned against what he claimed was a “corrupt” system under which he alleged public contracts were in the gift of the rival Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).

“The charge of buying the law is ridiculous, I could have bought the law ten years ago,” Mr Grubmüller said when questioned by the judge.

Four days of hearings have been scheduled for this week and a verdict could be reached as soon as Friday.

If found guilty, Mr Strache and Mr Grubmüller both face up to five years in prison.

The trial continues.

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