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Austria's Strache guilty of bribery, given suspended prison term

VIENNA: A Vienna court convicted the former leader of Austria's far-right Heinz-Christian Strache of a corruption charge on Friday in a case stemming from a 2019 scandal known as "Ibizagate".

Strache, who was one of Europe's most high-profile far-right leaders, was given a 15-month suspended jail sentence.

It is the first ruling stemming from the Ibizagate scandal, which led to Strache resigning as vice-chancellor and head of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

The affair brought down the coalition between the FPOe and the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and triggered fresh elections in the Alpine EU member.

The scandal broke when video footage emerged of Strache promising public contracts to a woman posing as a Russian oligarch's niece in exchange for support for the FPOe's 2017 election campaign.

The video, which was secretly filmed on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza, led to a sprawling investigation by anti-corruption prosecutors who turned up several other allegations of wrongdoing against Strache and other prominent politicians.

In the current trial the 52-year-old Strache was found guilty of helping change a law to help an FPOe donor friend of his, Walter Grubmueller, to secure public funding for his private hospital.

Addressing reporters outside the courtroom, Strache said he was "shocked" by the verdict. He insisted he had acted out of a sense of responsibility and a "deep and firm conviction" in order to right an "injustice" experienced by Grubmueller.

Grubmueller was also found guilty on Friday of corruption and given a 12-month suspended sentence.

Judge Claudia Moravec-Loidolt said "the chronology of the events leaves no doubt" that the crime took place. She added it was "not credible" that Strache did not know about Grubmueller's donations to the FPOe.

Both men sat motionless looking at the judge as she read out the verdicts.

Strache was acquitted of a second charge of receiving favours in the form of a trip to the Greek island of Corfu at Grubmueller's invitation.

According to an SMS exchange uncovered by prosecutors, Strache had asked Grubmueller which amendments to legislation would be needed in order for Grubmueller's clinic "to finally be treated in a fair manner".

During Strache's time in government, the law was amended to enable clinics like that of Grubmueller to receive money from the public health insurance fund. Both men's lawyers said after the verdict that they would appeal against their convictions.

As part of the investigations triggered by Ibizagate, Strache has also been accused of embezzling party funds to pay for his luxurious lifestyle during the 14 years he headed the FPOe, though he has not been charged over this.

Kurz returned to the chancellorship after the scandal, this time at the head of a coalition between his OeVP and the Greens, and has thus far managed to avoid any serious political damage from "Ibizagate".

His OeVP was even able to gain many disaffected FPOe voters in 2019 polls.

But in May, prosecutors announced they were investigating the 35-year-old on suspicion of giving false testimony to a committee of lawmakers probing Ibizagate and other graft allegations.

Kurz has denied the allegation and has insisted he will not bow to pressure to resign, even if formally charged. The FPOe's vote share crashed from 26 percent in 2017 to just 16 percent in 2019. The party has spent much of the time since the scandal consumed by infighting.

In June, Strache's successor as leader, Norbert Hofer, resigned after weeks of tension with party colleague and former interior minister Herbert Kickl.

Kickl, seen as a party ideologue and mastermind of some of its anti-Islam and anti-migrant campaigns, took over as leader.

Meanwhile, Strache attempted a political comeback last year with a bid to be Vienna's mayor, but his list won just three percent of the vote in municipal elections. - AFP

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