Austria says it must deter Russian infiltration after allegations of spying emerge

VIENNA (AP) — The arrest in recent days of a former Austrian intelligence officer on serious allegations of spying for Russia suggests that Austria needs to boost its security to thwart Russian infiltration, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said Monday.

The allegations against Egisto Ott, who worked for a now-defunct intelligence agency and whose arrest was announced Friday, are “grave” and have prompted Nehammer to call a meeting next week of Austria’s National Security Council, the chancellor said. Ott has denied wrongdoing.

“On the one hand, these allegations have to be addressed by the judiciary. On the other hand, an evaluation and clarification of the security situation of the republic is needed,” Nehammer said in a statement. “We have to avoid having Russian spy networks threaten our country by infiltrating or instrumentalizing political parties and networks.”

Nehammer said he would convene the National Security Council on Tuesday of next week. The council, which consists of government ministers as well as members of all political parties, is a key advisory panel on matters of security and defense.

The Vienna Criminal Court on Monday approved a 14-day extension for holding Ott in custody on the charges against him. The Vienna public prosecutor’s office declined to provide details about the spying allegations, but said that they relate to “abuse of office” and were “detrimental to Austria.”

According to a report in Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard, Ott is suspected of having handed over potentially sensitive data from the mobile phones of three former high-ranking Austrian Interior Ministry officials to Russian authorities back in 2022.

The mobile phones were supposed to be repaired by IT specialists of the former Austrian domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, or BVT, after they fell into the water during a boat excursion on the Danube river in 2017. The phone data instead fell into Ott’s hands, and he allegedly passed it on to Russian security officials.

Ott was arrested after authorities in the United Kingdom passed information about his case to their Austrian counterparts, Der Standard reported.

Britain has arrested five Bulgarian citizens last year and a sixth one in February and has charged them with allegedly being members of a Russian spy network working together with Jan Marsalek, the fugitive former chief operating officer of Wirecard, the German payment processing company that collapsed in 2020.

Joint reporting by Der Spiegel, German public broadcaster ZDF, the Austrian newspaper Der Standard and the Russian investigative platform The Insider said last month that Ott and another former Austrian intelligence officer are suspected of having spied on potential targets in Europe and having passed the information to Jan Marsalek, who they allege has had connections to Russian intelligence since at least 2014.

They also reported that Ott and his colleague allegedly helped Marsalek secretly escape from Austria in a private jet in 2020 after the Wirecard collapse.

Ott rejected the accusations against him as baseless in a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel.

There have been previous allegations against Ott. In 2017, Western intelligence agencies warned their Austrian counterparts about Ott potentially spying for Russia. Ott was suspended from his job at the BVT in 2017 and was briefly arrested in 2021, but he was released again after a short period of time.

A 6-page confidential document obtained in March by the Austrian weekly news magazine Der Falter also provided further details about Russia infiltrating the Austrian political elite, especially during 2017 and 2019 when the conservative People’s Party was in a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, which has signed a cooperation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia in 2016.

Austria expelled two Russian diplomats from Russia’s embassy in Vienna last month in what Austrian officials said was related to spying.

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