Trial of Austrian ex-chancellor Kurz wraps up

February 23, 2024 / 2:18 PM
Sharjah24 – AFP: An Austrian court on Friday started hearing statements from a Russian businessman, the final witness in the trial for alleged false testimony of former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, once hailed as a "wunderkind" of Europe's conservatives.
The judge is expected to rule later Friday on the charge of alleged false testimony following the months-long trial.

Kurz has insisted he is innocent of having misled a parliamentary inquiry probing wide-ranging corruption scandals that brought down his first government with the far-right in 2019.

But the trial and other ongoing corruption investigations have damaged the reputation of the charismatic hardliner, who left politics in 2021.

Kurz, 37, did not speak to media before he entered the courtroom, smiling at the pack of reporters and others present.

The trial's last day started with testimony from the Russian speaking via video conference from the Austrian embassy in Moscow.

He was called by the defense to discredit the prosecution's key witness, former government official Thomas Schmid.

After that, the court is expected to hear a rebuttal from Schmid before the closing statements.

Judge Michael Radasztics is expected to rule on the case later Friday. If convicted, Kurz could face up to three years in jail.

During the 12-day trial spread out since October, the court has heard testimony from at least nine witnesses so far.

Kurz, who headed the ruling conservative People's Party (OeVP) until 2021, is accused of downplaying his influence in appointing Schmid as the head of a state-owned company.

Throughout the trial, Kurz has portrayed himself as the victim of a selective prosecution and an opposition out to "destroy him".

Kurz insisted that while he had been informed about the appointment of Schmid, he did not decide on it.

He dismissed prosecutors' suggestions that he had sought to control everything.

Schmid, on the other hand, testified that Kurz built up a "system" where he held the reins and could veto any appointment of personnel in key companies.

Among the other witnesses who have already testified were two former finance ministers, who backed Kurz, as well as another Russian businessman.

That witness also spoke via video conference from the Austrian embassy in Moscow to discredit Schmid -- though he raised eyebrows when he said Kurz's lawyer had helped draft his statement.

"There has been some damage in terms of how he (Kurz) acted in this trial," said political analyst Thomas Hofer, a former finance ministry official.

"I think you could see how a politician -- a very PR-focused politician -- was not really able to switch gear for the court... He was so consumed by his public image," he told AFP.

If Kurz is acquitted, any damage may fade, Hofer added.

He nevertheless ruled out any imminent return of Kurz, who in 2017, at the age of 31, became the world's youngest democratically elected head of government.

"This image of the star that's still there -- and if he comes back (to lead the OeVP), everything will be good -- I think it's just a wrong assessment of the situation," Hofer told AFP.

Separately, prosecutors are still investigating Kurz on suspicion of having embezzled public money to fund polls skewed to boost his image, and to pay for favourable coverage to help his political rise.

But they have so far failed to obtain any convictions since a video emerged in 2019 showing Kurz's then-vice chancellor of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) offering public contracts to a purported Russian investor for campaign help.

The FPOe slumped in popularity just after the scandal, but under new leadership has bounced back to top the polls. Currently, it is polling at about 30 percent ahead of elections expected in September.

Kurz is now involved with numerous private international enterprises.

In 2022, he launched a cybersecurity company with the former head of Israel's NSO Group, which makes the controversial Pegasus spyware.

It is the first time in more than 30 years that a former chancellor has stood trial.

In the last case, Fred Sinowatz of the Social Democrats was found guilty, also for giving false testimony, and received a fine.
February 23, 2024 / 2:18 PM

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