A senior Syrian official denied asylum in France due to concerns of possible involvement in war crimes was spirited out of the country with help from the Israeli secret service Mossad to Austria, where he was helped to start a new life, a top judicial source has told The Telegraph.
Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi, who was chief of Syrian intelligence in Raqqa from 2009 until 2013, is also the target of a legal complaint for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, a Telegraph investigation can reveal.
During his time in charge of the Raqqa facility, prisoners were allegedly murdered, tortured and sexually assaulted, according to the complaint filed in a Western country and which has been sent to the Paris prosecutor.
Mr Halabi vehemently denies any wrongdoing.
In spite of human rights concerns about his unit, France’s spy agency, Direction Générale de la Ssécurité Extérieure, (DGSE), helped the general secretly leave Syria and travel to France in 2014 at a time when Syria’s war against rebel forces was in the balance, it is alleged.
He was, however, then denied asylum in France due to concerns that his senior position in the Syrian regime meant he could have been involved in criminal acts, The Telegraph has learned.
That prompted the French War Crimes Unit to launch a preliminary investigation in 2017. In spite of this, he was then mysteriously exfiltrated from France by Israeli intelligence agents to Austria, where he was successfully granted asylum, according to the judicial source and French and Austrian media.
The agencies involved allegedly believed Mr Halabi could play an important role in the future of Syria.
“It's clear he is a big fish,” said one senior French judicial source. “We wanted to quiz him about all the testimonies we have gathered. It is very frustrating as he was a top target."
How Mr Halabi obtained asylum when France turned him down and whether he should have been prosecuted has sparked a national uproar in Austria in recent weeks, with the media revealing an apparent power struggle between the country’s domestic intelligence agency, which allegedly helped the general, and its justice ministry which sought to investigate him.
In 2013, when Mr Halabi defected, it was not clear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would prevail over the rebels who had been fighting to overthrow him since 2011. Russia, which would provide decisive help to the embattled president, would not enter the war for another two years.
That October, as Raqqa became the first provincial capital to fall to the rebels, Mr Halabi slipped out of the city among a stream of refugees headed to Turkey.
By early 2014 he had made it to France with the help of French agents who may have believed the senior official could be a useful asset in the event of President Assad’s downfall, the senior French judicial source told The Telegraph.
“This was also just a few months before the 2015 terror attacks in Paris and the DGSE was desperate to get their hands on any leads about the Islamic State, which they knew was actively planning strikes,” said the source, who asked their name be withheld.
“If they brought him here it was no doubt because they considered him a usable source,” said one senior French military intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, Mr Halabi’s request for asylum in France was declined in 2015, with the French Office for Refugees, OFPRA, citing a specific provision of the Geneva Convention, 1F. This denies an individual refugee status when there are serious reasons to consider he may have committed a “crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, or a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge”.
He could not be deported however as Syria was a country at war.
At this point, the Israeli and Austrian intelligence services are alleged to have intervened on Mr Halabi’s behalf.
“As he was really peeved not to get asylum in France, he appears to have made contact with Mossad who got in contact with Austria's BVT,” the judicial source said, adding that “Mossad must also have thought he could be interesting and perhaps even play a political role in the future.”
The respected Austrian newspaper Kurier published an investigation this month alleging Mr Halabi was smuggled to Austria with the help of the Israeli and Austrian intelligence services, who supported his asylum application.
“The BVT has no information that Khaled H... was involved in war crimes or other criminal offences in Syria. There are also no indications that the presence of H in Austria would endanger public safety," an unnamed Austrian intelligence officer wrote in a leaked memo, adding that the BVT saw “no grounds for refusal of the asylum procedure”.
Mr Halabi’s application was granted on December 2, 2015. Austrian authorities provided him with a 107-square-metre, four-bedroom apartment in Vienna’s Ottakring district. He subsequently received more than €50,000 in public benefits, as well as a €5,000 monthly stipend from Mossad, Austrian media alleged.
Meanwhile, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an organisation that gathers evidence of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity from conflict zones, had been active in Syria since 2012 amassing a massive number of documents.
After becoming aware of Mr Halabi's whereabouts, CIJA presented a legal brief to Austrian authorities in January 2016, outlining what it says is evidence of his alleged involvement in war crimes.
“We have documents, we have interrogation reports ... we have quite a few insider witnesses and testimony from about 40 victims who were tortured,” said CIJA director Nerma Jelacic.
“You had murder, torture, rape, a variety of sexual offences against men and women, crimes against minors.”
CIJA says its evidence demonstrates Mr Halabi’s responsibility for actions taken by those under his command.
Among documents reviewed by The Telegraph are what purport to be minutes from a meeting of the Raqqa Governorate Security Committee on May 10, 2011, that establish Mr Halabi as the head of general intelligence in Raqqa.
Another memo, purportedly signed by Mr Halabi, details the arrest of the son of a man suspected to be involved in weapons smuggling. Beyond showing that his office, Branch 335, was detaining innocent civilians, the document suggests that Mr Halabi was reporting up the chain of command to the head of the General Intelligence Directorate in Damascus, CIJA said, suggesting that criminal acts under his leadership were systematic rather than the result of rogue subordinates.
Mouaz, a Syrian refugee interviewed by France Info channel in 2019, claimed he was tortured in Branch 335.
“A guard called me and tied me to a plank, he lifted my feet in the air and he beat them hard, very, very hard.”
Mouaz also identified Mr Halabi as the head of Branch 335.
“The person at the head of this intelligence service was called Khaled Al-Halabi. It was a name that cast fear into all of us.”
The interrogation room in Branch 335 was next to Mr Halabi’s office, according to testimony. “Witnesses told us the screams of detainees could be heard throughout the three-storey building,” said Ms Jelacic.
Mr Halabi denied the allegations last year, telling FranceTVInfo: "No, it's not true at all, these accusations are false. There is no proof, show me the proof if you have any. In all my life, I never hurt anyone."
Contacted by The Telegraph, Mr Halabi declined to comment.
CIJA says the dossier it submitted merits further investigation but after the group met Austrian justice ministry officials in January 2016 Mr Halabi was neither arrested nor questioned.
In 2017, an early draft of a bill to target regime officials with US sanctions that would become the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act listed “Khaled Muhsen Al-Halabi, Security Branch 335.” The list of names was dropped from the final act.
France, hoping to continue investigations, issued Europol requests to locate Mr Halabi.
In November 2018, Austrian police finally raided Mr Halabi’s apartment but he was not there and his home had been ransacked in a manner that Kurier said looked staged. Since then his whereabouts have not been publicly known.
Neighbours in the quiet public housing neighbourhood where he lived remember Mr Halabi as a quiet, polite man who smoked heavily.
“He never smoked in the apartment, only outside at the stairway entrance. His favourite place was the bank in front of the stairs. Sometimes he sat there for hours,” said Jennifer Zika, 28, who was questioned by police about Mr Halabi in 2018.
His sudden disappearance was surprising to the neighbours. “He just wasn’t here anymore one day,” said one 46-year-old woman who gave her name as Lucia.
Mr Halabi’s case has caused a major political scandal since breaking in the Austrian press this month, with a number of MPs describing Mr Halabi as a “war criminal” in a written parliamentary question submitted to the interior minister on October 7.
“Is it one of the tasks of the BVT to bring war criminals to Austria for other countries and smuggle them into the asylum system?” they asked, in a question signed by Christian Hafenecker of the far-Right Freedom Party (FPO) among others.
“Interior Minister [Karl] Nehammer must provide full clarification in the BVT asylum scandal involving the Syrian torture general,” the FPO wrote in a press release.
Prosecutors are investigating figures in the BFA asylum authority and the BVT for abuse of power, including a department head and former counterintelligence chief, Kurier reports.
In a statement, prosecutors said: “The suspicion against officials of the BVT and BFA, who are under investigation, arises from the negative asylum decision of the French authorities and the course of the Austrian asylum procedure. Although H stated in his first interview stated that he had already requested asylum in France and that he had worked as a general in Syrian military intelligence, the BFA failed to consult with France.”
The Austrian interior ministry declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.
Former Austrian interior minister Herbert Kickl, a senior figure in the far-Right Freedom Party, told The Telegraph he was aware of the case when he was minister but said; “I didn't learn anything beyond what's in the current media reports.”
Mr Halabi is believed to still be in Europe.
“According to my sources, he continues to travel between Austria, Slovakia and sometimes Switzerland where a certain Syrian ex-general has offered him protection,” said the French judicial source.
A legal complaint for “war crimes and crimes against humanity” has been filed in one of these countries, a legal source confirmed while declining to say which so as not to harm the case.
“Austrian authorities have recently stated they are aware of his whereabouts,” said CIJA director Nerma Jelacic.
“He’s the highest-ranking Syrian regime official that can be found in the Schengen Zone,” she added, and as such could be the most senior Syrian figure within reach of international justice.