Five former Austrian officials are on trial in Vienna, accused of granting asylum to a suspected Syrian war criminal in Austria at the request of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. The five individuals are accused of abusing their positions by bringing Khaled Halabi, a former Syrian general, to Austria in 2015 and arranging asylum for him. Four of the accused are former intelligence officials, and one is a former asylum agency official.
Halabi is accused of being responsible for torture in Syrian facilities under Syrian President Bashar Assad. While Austrian authorities have initiated criminal proceedings against Halabi, they have not yet indicted him. According to an investigation by Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine and Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard, the Mossad recruited Halabi, a member of the Druze minority in Syria, as an informant.
Prosecutors allege that the former intelligence officials breached their duties by not disclosing information about the operation to other state bodies. They also allege that the Mossad paid 5,000 euros ($5,500) per month to help harbor Halabi in Austria. The indictment states that Martin W., who was a senior agent in Austria’s domestic intelligence agency, the BVT, at the time, concluded a “cooperation agreement with a foreign partner intelligence service” on May 6, 2015. The agreement contained details on how to bring Halabi from France to Austria and support him in applying for asylum, according to the indictment.
Prosecutor Ursula Schmudermayer told the Vienna state court that Austrian intelligence officials had travelled to Tel Aviv in March 2015 to meet Mossad agents. She said the Israeli agents informed the Austrians that the Syrian general was in France but that “cooperation with France is not working as they had envisioned,” so they wanted Austria “to step in.” The Mossad intended to continue questioning Halabi in Austria.
Prosecutors accuse the former intelligence officials of breaching their duties to provide information about Halabi’s whereabouts and identity, particularly after a 2016 meeting at the Austrian Justice Ministry. At that meeting, representatives of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability presented evidence that Halabi was suspected of implication in potential war crimes in Syria and said France had initiated an investigation against him for possible “systematic torture.”
The defendants’ lawyers argue that they acted correctly because all details of the cooperation agreement with the Mossad were labeled as “strictly confidential,” and that the cooperation agreement with Israeli intelligence helped Austria gain information that would not have been possible to receive in any other way. They also argued that the cooperation agreement with the Mossad was necessary at the time, as Europe faced the arrival of large numbers of refugees from the Syrian civil war and an increased terrorist threat.
The trial is scheduled to run through next Friday, and it is not yet clear when the court might issue verdicts. The defendants can only be partially identified under Austrian rules.