It sounds like a cheap spy thriller: Austrian secret service agents are said to have illegally brought a Syrian to the Alpine republic at the urging of their colleagues from Israel. Everything happened in 2015, at the time of the great wave of refugees. The background is now being worked up in court.
Several secret service agents are now on trial for allegedly bringing the Syrian General Khaled H. to Austria without a legal basis in order to offer him protection. In court, they stated that they had no knowledge of the suspicion against the Syrian. It is now known that the suspected Syrian secret service agent was a general in the GID, one of the many secret services of dictator Bashar al-Assad. H. himself claims that he treated prisoners well and even helped the insurgents against the regime. Khaled H. was a major figure in the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad: an intelligence officer with the rank of brigadier general, head of a department of the state security service in the city of Raqqa, where resistance to the ruler was particularly strong. Shortly before Raqqa was conquered by rebels in 2013, H. fled abroad. The deserted general ended up in France, where he applied for asylum.
A regime insider like H. is naturally right at the top of the whistleblower’s wish list. In this specific case, it was the Israeli Mossad who wanted to acquire the defector. However, this was not so easy to implement in France, which is why the Mossad approached Austria. Its intelligence BVT concluded a cooperation agreement with the Israeli secret service: the Syrian general would be accommodated in Austria, and the Israelis would provide the financial means for this.
is said to have defected from Syria to France during the course of the civil war. Israeli foreign intelligence agency Mossad expressed interest in any information the general might have. Alone: The French authorities were apparently not overly cooperative, which is why a plan was hatched: the then deputy head of the Austrian domestic secret service flew to Tel Aviv in March 2015 to meet Mossad employees, where a cooperation agreement was reached. The Syrian general was to be brought to Austria, receive asylum there and be available to the Israelis. The agent instructed a colleague to carry it out, who in turn informed his direct subordinates.
According to the indictment, an official from the asylum office was contacted on May 6, 2015 to find out how asylum could be obtained in Austria for a Syrian national who already had an asylum procedure in France. The e-mail reply: You can ensure that the “file stays where it is”, after two months Austria can simply take over the asylum procedure from France. “From our point of view, that would be a much more elegant solution,” it was stated.
The agreement with the Israeli spies stated that the Mossad would pay the general 5,000 euros a month, but that the Austrians were not allowed to use him as a source, only the Mossad could “skim” him. Nevertheless, one of the accused is said to have helped the general to be included in the Austrian basic welfare system as allegedly destitute.
The US magazine “The New Yorker” already did [a report] two years ago(How a Syrian War Criminal and Double Agent Disappeared in Europe) on Khaled H., in which the journalists at least suspect that he may have acted as an Israeli spy. Opposition figures from Syria accuse him of spying after his escape – possibly even during his time in Austria.
In fact, the Syrian ex-general was granted asylum in December 2015. But as early as January 2016, the campaign began to get out of hand. An international non-governmental organization CIJA went to the Ministry of Justice and raised the suspicion that H. might be in Austria and could be partly responsible for torture in Syria. Agents from Vienna’s secret service, who knew full well that the Syrian had been in the country for months, were also present at the meeting. Ultimately, however, the service only informed the judiciary a few weeks later. According to the public prosecutor’s office, the officials had thereby violated their reporting obligations. The secret service says behind closed doors that it would also have been devastating to present details of a secret operation in an appointment with a hitherto unknown organization. The fact that the suspected CIJA headquarters in the Netherlands was photographed and scrutinized during a business trip is again considered by the public prosecutor to be a prohibited investigative measure. Ultimately, the court will also have to deal with the question of whether the secret service was more interested in the NGO than in the allegations of torture against the informant. When France then put the ex-general on international alert in 2018, the situation escalated.
In the meantime, witnesses have come forward who say they were abused with H.’s knowledge – directly in his office. The Viennese lawyer Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek represents torture victims from Syria on behalf of the Center for the Enforcement of Human Rights International (Cehri). She represents 21 witnesses, and eight of them still had verifiable injuries that were medically examined. The result is pending. The NGO has committed itself to the task of prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity in accordance with the principle of universal jurisdiction. Put simply, this means that every state is responsible for the prosecution of international crimes – even if the crime was not committed on its sovereign territory. In the recent past, the judiciary in Germany in particular has become known with judgments against Syrian officers who had to face crimes that were not committed on German soil before a court. The best-known case was heard before the district court of Koblenz.
It is clear to Wittek that H. is responsible for what is happening in the prison because of his position. He also decided which of his prisoners were transferred to the Syrian capital Damascus for further interrogation – which was more or less equivalent to a death sentence.
Now she wants to ensure that H. is brought to justice in Austria. In the proceedings against the Austrian agents, he only counts as a witness; an application by the lawyer to allow her clients, who were tortured in ar-Raqqa prison, to be private parties in the proceedings was initially rejected by the presiding judge.
It is questionable whether it will still be possible to bring H. to trial. That will initially be judged by whether he complies with his witness summons – then one will know whether he is still in Austria and available for the judiciary.
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