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Austrian political sting mastermind seeks asylum in Germany – Financial Times

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The man behind the notorious “Ibiza video” that brought down Austria’s government in 2019 said he was seeking asylum in Germany to escape “political persecution” in his homeland, in a case that risks becoming a diplomatic bone of contention between Vienna and Berlin. 

Julian H was arrested in Berlin last year on an international arrest warrant. Austrian authorities are seeking to extradite him to face charges of drug-dealing and attempted blackmail.

But H insisted he was innocent. “They’re standard criminal charges . . . but they arise out of a case that is highly politicised,” he said in an interview in Berlin’s Moabit prison. “This [case] stinks of political persecution.” He added that, if sent back to his homeland he had “little hope of a fair trial”.

Covertly filmed in an Ibiza villa in 2017, H’s video appeared to show Heinz-Christian Strache, then-leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), soliciting political funding from Russia in exchange for government contracts. Its release caused a political earthquake in Austria, triggering Strache’s resignation as vice-chancellor.

Soon after, Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz dissolved the coalition government between his mainstream conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the FPÖ.

For years, the identity of the mastermind behind the set-up was known only to a group of journalists and police investigators. That changed in December when H — under German law, his surname cannot be divulged — was arrested.

In his first interview with a non-German news outlet, H, a private detective, said he conceived the plot as a “mirror” held up to Austrian politics and society. “I wanted to show how easy it would be to involve a leading politician in a corrupt deal . . . I showed that even with a tiny budget you could compromise a politician who would soon become vice-chancellor.”

But he said he did not expect the video to have such an impact. “I only ever wanted to flag up Strache’s alleged corruption and . . . the dangers of rightwing populism, which was running rampant at the time,” he said. “I never intended to trigger a government crisis.”

In the video, Strache appeared to discuss possible deals with a woman introduced as the niece of a Russian oligarch. He is heard suggesting he would hand her lucrative state contracts if she purchased Austria’s popular tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, and made it an FPÖ mouthpiece.

After the video’s release, Strache described the meeting as a “mistake”. But he said media accounts of the conversation were heavily edited and that he had insisted throughout he would do nothing illegal. He was the victim of a “calculated political hit-job” and an “attack by the intelligence agencies”, he said. 

H dismissed claims that foreign spy agencies had been involved in the sting operation as “pretty amusing”. “I did everything myself, even setting up the cameras. That’s why it was all so unprofessional.”

He said the idea for the video came about after a former bodyguard of Strache approached a Viennese lawyer identified as M with evidence he had gathered about the politician. M. and H. hoped that by filming Strache covertly they could lend the ex-bodyguard’s claims more credibility.

H said he was also motivated by concerns about creeping Russian influence on Austrian politics. “Austria is an unbelievably soft target,” he said. “Politicians have an affinity for donors and donations. And they don’t check the donors very thoroughly.”

However, attempts by M to interest various Austrian businessmen and politicians in the video led nowhere. Meanwhile, as rumours about the footage circulated, H said he feared his role would be exposed.

His concerns grew after the FPÖ entered government in 2017 and took over the defence and interior ministries. “That’s when I started to panic,” he said.

He later passed the footage to two German news organisations who published details of the Ibiza encounter in May 2019.

In the aftermath of the reports, H, who had since moved to Germany, was accused by Austrian authorities of improper use of recording equipment, selling cocaine and attempting to blackmail Strache. 

H has described these accusations as “trumped up”. His lawyer said the drug-dealing charge was based on testimony from a man with convictions for fraud who had previously slandered H. He said one of those who allegedly bought drugs from H denied having done so. On the last charge, the lawyer said, Strache himself denied ever being blackmailed over the video. 

The Higher Court of Berlin decided that making the video was not a punishable offence, but remanded H in custody on the other charges.

A spokeswoman for the Berlin criminal court system said there was “no evidence” that H could be “persecuted or punished for his political views” if extradited to Austria and that there was “no doubt” he would have a fair trial there. However, she said the court had delayed a decision on extradition “in order to further examine the facts” of the case.

H acknowledged he faced an uphill task. “The problem is that if they grant me asylum, they’re virtually saying I’m the victim of political persecution in Austria, which is a serious thing to say about a fellow EU member,” he said. “It seems the judicial authorities in Berlin are unwilling to risk a diplomatic incident.”

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Morning Brief: 'Playing politics' – iPolitics.ca

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Today’s Morning Brief is brought to you by GCT’s #BetterDeltaport campaign. The Port of Vancouver’s multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded RBT2 project will create unneeded capacity, uncompetitive port rates and will cause damage that, according to Environment Canada, is “permanent, irreversible, and continuous.” Fortunately, there is a way to #buildbackbetter. Learn more.

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You can listen to today’s brief here:


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Good morning, and happy March.

Liberals accuse Tories of ‘playing politics’: Liberal MPs are accusing the Conservatives of blocking the government’s legislative agenda almost to the point of obstruction. While all parties say they do not want an election amid the pandemic, the Canadian Press looks at how the Conservatives might be pursuing a strategy that would give the Liberals reason to call one.

Kady O’Malley looks ahead to the day in politics with iPolitics AM: “With daily Commons proceedings on pause until next Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will start his week with a virtual visit to Nova Scotia’s Eastern Passage, where, as per his official itinerary, he’ll join local MP Darrell Samson for a closed-door video chat with members of the Island View High School student council. Also on the prime ministerial to-do list today: A huddle with his front bench team, as well as other unspecified ‘private meetings.’”

Blinken on two Michaels: The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, says his country will continue to stand with Canada in its efforts to secure the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Chinese detention.

“It’s a lot harder for China to ignore our collective voice and our collective weight than it is for China to ignore each of us individually,” he said, adding that he had brought the two Michaels up in his own conversations with Chinese counterparts.

Kremlin-linked Twitter accounts targeted Canada: Canada and Canadian political leaders were targeted more than 300 times by social media accounts that have now been shut down by Twitter due to their links to the Russian government or its proxies. Many tweets made by the now-suspended accounts were focused on undermining confidence in NATO, The Globe and Mail reports, citing data from DisinfoWatch.org.

Woman behind Vance allegations speaks out: Maj. Kellie Brennan, the woman at the centre of allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Gen. Jonathan Vance, is calling for an independent investigation to fix systemic problems within the Canadian armed forces. Since sharing her story publicly with Global News a week ago, she says she has been flooded with messages from others who allege they have experienced misconduct in the military.

Divorce Act changes take effect: New rules meant to put an end to the winner-loser mentality of family law come into effect today. Divorcing spouses now have a legal “duty” to use other channels, rather than the courts — such as negotiation, collaborative law, or mediation — “to the extent that it is appropriate to do so.” The aim is to avoid drawn-out court battles that could harm the children of separating parents.

Coming up: Meng Wanzhou is due back in the British Columbia Supreme Court today. Her lawyers are expected to argue for admission of evidence to support their case.

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News tip? Let us know: [email protected]

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AROUND THE WORLD

Protests in Hong Kong: Crowds gathered outside a courthouse in Hong Kong in the territory’s biggest protests in months. They demonstrated to support 47 pro-democracy activists charged with subversion under the national security law.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the release of the campaigners in a tweet yesterday.

Tehran rejects talks: Iran rejected proposed nuclear negotiations with the U.S., which the European Union had offered to broker. Tehran insists that the U.S. must lift all unilateral sanctions before the two sides can come to the table, while Washington says Iran must make the first move and return to compliance with the 2015 deal.

U.S. House passes $1.9 trillion relief package: The stimulus bill is now headed to the U.S. Senate, after the House passed it early on Saturday.

Myanmar military fires on protesters: Myanmar soldiers opened fire on protesters over the weekend, killing at least 18 people in the deadliest day of protests since the coup last month.

This morning, Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in court via a video link, the first time she’s been seen publicly since being detained in the coup.

Elsewhere: The U.S. approved Johnson & Johnson‘s vaccine. Europe’s AstraZeneca stockpile mounts as citizens snub the jab. Indian PM Modi got his COVID-19 shot. Amnesty International says Eritrean troops killed hundreds of Ethiopian civilians. Gunmen in Nigeria released 27 schoolboys who were kidnapped the week before last, but the search is ongoing for more than 300 schoolgirls abducted on Friday. Trump blasted Biden in a CPAC speech.

IN OTHER HEADLINES

WHAT WE’RE READING

ICYMI FROM IPOLITICS

CARTOON OF THE DAY

THE KICKER

After North Korea closed its borders to trains as part of its COVID-19 measures, a group of Russian diplomats seeking to leave Pyongyang were forced to do so via a hand-pushed rail trolley.

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Conservatives accused of 'playing politics' in the House, raising questions about pandemic election – CBC.ca

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All federal party leaders maintain they don’t want an election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Conservatives appear to be pursuing a strategy that could give the Liberals justification for calling one.

Liberals are accusing the Conservatives of systematically blocking the government’s legislative agenda, including bills authorizing billions of dollars in pandemic-related aid and special measures for safely conducting a national election.

The Conservatives counter that the Liberals have not used the control they have over the House of Commons agenda to prioritize the right bills, while other parties say both the government and the Official Opposition share the blame.

“They’re playing politics all the time in the House. It’s delay, delay, delay — and eventually that delay becomes obstruction,” Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez said in an interview, referring to the Conservatives.

“It’s absurd. I think it’s insulting to Canadians, and I think people should be worried because those important programs may not come into force … because of the games played by the Conservatives.”

Conservatives blocking legislative agenda, Liberals say

Rodriguez pointed to the three hours last week that the Commons spent discussing a months-old, three-sentence committee report affirming the competence of the new Canadian Tourism Commission president.

That was forced by a Conservative procedural manoeuvre, upending the government’s plan to finally start debate on the pandemic election bill. It contains measures the chief electoral officer has said are urgent given that the minority Liberal government could fall at any time if the opposition parties unite against it.

Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez, shown last September, says the Conservatives have delayed the government’s agenda to the point of obstruction. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A week earlier, MPs spent three hours discussing a committee report recommending a national awareness day for human trafficking — something Rodriguez said had unanimous support and could have been dealt with “in a second.”

That debate, also prompted by the Conservatives, prevented any progress on Bill C-14, legislation flowing from last fall’s economic statement with billions in expanded emergency aid programs and new targeted aid for hard-hit industries.

That bill was introduced in December but stalled at second reading, with Conservative MPs talking out the clock each time it did come up for debate. After eight days of sporadic debate — more than is normally accorded for a full-fledged budget, Rodriguez noted — Conservatives finally agreed on Friday to let the bill proceed to committee for scrutiny.

‘Modest debate’ warranted: O’Toole

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has argued that “modest debate” is warranted on C-14, which he maintains is aimed a fixing errors in previous rushed emergency aid legislation.

Last December, the Conservatives dragged out debate on Bill C-7, a measure to expand medical assistance in dying in compliance with a 2019 court ruling.

O’Toole says ‘modest debate’ is necessary to review C-14, a federal COVID-19 relief bill that he maintains is aimed a fixing errors in previous rushed emergency aid legislation. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

For three straight days last week, they refused consent to extend sitting hours to debate a motion laying out the government’s response to Senate amendments to C-7, despite a looming court deadline that was extended Thursday to March 26.

Conservatives say they offered the previous week to extend the hours to allow a thorough debate, but the government waited five days before tabling its response to the amendments.

Liberals can’t cut debates short alone

For Rodriguez, it all adds up to “a pattern” of obstruction aimed at blocking the government’s legislative agenda.

Procedural machinations are commonly used by opposition parties to tie up legislation. But Rodriguez argued it’s inappropriate in a pandemic, when “people are dying by the dozens every day.”

If the government held a majority of seats in the Commons, it could impose closure on debates. But in the current minority situation, it would need the support of one of the main opposition parties to cut short debate — something it’s not likely to get.

In a minority Parliament, Rodriguez argued, all parties share responsibility for ensuring that legislation can at least get to a vote.

Opposition parties point fingers

But Conservative House leader Gérard Deltell lays the blame for the legislative impasse squarely on Rodriguez.

“The government House leader has failed to set clear priorities and has therefore failed to manage the legislative agenda,” he said in a statement to The Canadian Press, adding that “my door is always open for frank and constructive discussions.”

Bloc Québécois House leader Alain Therrien agrees that the Liberals have “mismanaged the legislative calendar and must take their responsibilities.” But he doesn’t exempt the Conservatives.

He said their obstruction of the assisted-dying bill and another that would ban forcible conversion therapy aimed at altering a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is “deplorable.”

“These are files that require compassion and rigour. It is inexcusable to hold the House hostage on such matters,” Therrien said in an email, suggesting that O’Toole is having trouble controlling the “religious right” in his caucus.

NDP House leader Peter Julian says he feels the Liberals are angling for an election, while the Conservatives focus on blocking bills. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

As far as NDP House leader Peter Julian is concerned, both the Liberals and Conservatives are trying to trigger an election.

“We believe that is absolutely inappropriate, completely inappropriate given the pandemic, given the fact that so many Canadians are suffering,” he said in an interview.

Julian accused the Liberals of bringing forward unnecessary legislation, such as the election bill, while “vitally important” bills, including one implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and another on net-zero carbon emissions, languish.

The intention of the Liberals, he said, is to eventually say there must be an election because of “all these important things we couldn’t get done.” And the Conservatives “seem to want to play into this narrative” by blocking the bills the government does put forward.

Rodriguez must be at ‘wits end’: May

Veteran Green Party MP Elizabeth May, however, agrees with Rodriguez, who she says must be “at his wits’ end.”

“What I see is obstructionism, pure and simple,” she said in an interview.

She blames the Conservatives primarily for the procedural “tomfoolery” but accuses both the Bloc and NDP of being “in cahoots,” putting up speakers to help drag out time-wasting debates on old committee reports.

“It’s mostly the Conservatives, but they’re in league,” May said.

“They are all trying to keep anything orderly from happening that might possibly let the Liberals say we’ve accomplished a legislative agenda. Whether the bills are good, bad or indifferent is irrelevant in this strategy.”

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Politics Chat: Former President Trump To Speak At CPAC – NPR

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Former President Donald Trump speaks today at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida. As Trump’s grip tightens on the GOP, President Joe Biden continues to address U.S. border policy.



LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

* And there he was…

(CROSSTALK)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: …This time in the form of a golden statue rolling through the Hyatt Hotel last week in Orlando, Fla., as the Conservative Political Action Conference kicked off. The gleaming figure of former President Donald Trump looks like a cousin of Shoney’s big boy, except with a red tie, stars-and-stripes swim trunks, flip flops and the Constitution in one very shiny hand and a wand – maybe a wand – in the other. The real Donald Trump speaks today as CPAC wraps up. Meanwhile, the man who beat him in November, President Joe Biden, is himself courting Republicans in an effort to ensure the success of his political agenda. Joining me now to talk about all this is NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

Good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The speech by the former president is unusual for former presidents – not so unusual for this former president, who has made it clear he plans to try and remain relevant.

RASCOE: Yeah, Trump never adhered to norms as president, and he’s still not doing it. But we should say it is really unprecedented. Presidents who lose reelection and even those that don’t generally try to stay out of the spotlight after leaving the White House. The reason why it’s worth paying attention to Trump at this moment is because he has so much influence on people who are still in power and those running for office.

There are some high-profile Republicans, like Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who have said that it’s time for the GOP to move on from Trump, but it doesn’t seem like Republicans are ready to quit him just yet. And people like Senator Lindsey Graham have basically said, yes, Trump’s a handful, but there’s no way Republicans win without him. Most Republicans seem to agree with Senator Graham. So this is the first time that Trump is making this sort of speech since he left office. And it’s a big deal because he’s able to really dictate the direction of the Republican Party.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are we expecting to hear from him?

RASCOE: We are expecting him to declare himself the leader of the Republican Party. Beyond that, he will almost certainly lay into his perceived enemies. I mentioned Liz Cheney, who voted for his impeachment. He’s already come out against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. So expect to hear him on the attack. He will almost certainly want to relitigate the 2020 election, especially considering he never stopped talking about the 2016 election, and he won that one. So everyone will be waiting to hear whether he teases a 2024 run.

With Trump in the picture, he’s really freezing the Republican field right now. And I should remind everyone that it was at CPAC a few years ago that Trump talked for almost two hours and hugged the flag and did all of that. So it would not be surprising to see Trump do something like that again. With no social media megaphone, he probably has a lot to get off of his chest. But what his advisers and probably a number of Republicans will want Trump to do in this speech is to go after President Biden, especially on the issue of immigration, which is sort of – which is the sort of issue that can really rally the base. We will see whether that happens.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So not exactly healing the divides within his own party. Let’s turn to the actual president, Biden. He’s set to meet virtually with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Border policy is on the agenda.

RASCOE: Yes, this meeting comes as Biden has been facing pressure from the left because of the surge in unaccompanied minors at the border. The White House has defended its handling of the situation, but some progressives have raised concerns about the conditions of the facilities where these children are being held. So this is an issue that’s going to be on the agenda when he talks to Lopez Obrador in Biden’s second virtual meeting with a foreign leader.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

Thank you so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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