Former Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz convicted of false statements, given suspended sentence

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VIENNA (AP) — Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was convicted Friday of making false statements to a parliamentary inquiry into alleged corruption in his first government. He was given an eight-month suspended sentence.

The verdict at the Vienna criminal court followed a four-month trial. The case marked the first time in more than 30 years that a former Austrian chancellor had stood trial.

The case centered on Kurz’s testimony to an inquiry that focused on the coalition he led from 2017, when his conservative Austrian People's Party formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, until its collapse in 2019.

Prosecutors accused the 37-year-old of having given false evidence in June 2020 regarding his role in the setting up of a holding company, OeBAG, which administers the state’s role in some companies, and the appointment of his former close confidant Thomas Schmid to its leadership.

Judge Michael Radasztics found Kurz guilty of making false statements about the appointment of the company’s supervisory board, though not about that of Schmid.

Kurz stood motionless as Radasztics announced the verdict to a packed courtroom. His lawyer later said he would appeal the conviction, which Kurz described to reporters as “very unfair.”

Kurz said he was “very optimistic” that he would be cleared on appeal. “I tried honestly to testify truthfully to the commission of inquiry,” he added.

Once a rising star among conservatives in Europe, Kurz resigned in 2021 after a separate corruption probe opened and has since left politics. However, his People’s Party continues to lead the government under current Chancellor Karl Nehammer. The party is currently trailing in polls ahead of a national election expected in September, and the Kurz verdict could put it under more pressure.

In his closing statement, prosecutor Gregor Adamovic said Kurz had “actively” supported Schmid with the aim of handing OeBAG’s leadership to his preferred candidate, and contended that it was clear the then-chancellor signed off on all the candidates for the company’s board.

Kurz has repeatedly stated that he was only “informed” about but didn't actively participate in the decision on the supervisory board. He said after the verdict that he had told the inquiry that he was ”involved,“ but two candidates he favored hadn't received board positions.

The prosecution also contended that Kurz made false statements in order to avoid public criticism of cronyism which he had himself declared to fight in the Austrian political system.

In their indictment, which wasn’t released to the public but was obtained by The Associated Press, prosecutors reference potentially incriminating chat messages found on Schmid’s phone. Schmid, who is cooperating with prosecutors, testified extensively.

In an emotional closing statement to a court session that stretched into the evening, Kurz said it made him feel “helpless” to see that the trial was mainly about how prosecutors interpreted his statement to the inquiry and not what he had actually meant.

“What I said during the parliamentary inquiry does not correspond to the interpretation of the prosecution,” he said.

Kurz rose to power with an anti-immigration platform and was only 31 when he became the leader of the People’s Party and then chancellor in 2017.

Kurz pulled the plug on his first government after a video surfaced that showed the vice chancellor and Freedom Party leader at the time, Heinz-Christian Strache, appearing to offer favors to a purported Russian investor.

A few months later, Kurz returned to power in a new coalition with the environmentalist Greens in early 2020, but resigned in October 2021. The Greens had demanded his replacement after prosecutors announced that he was a target of a second investigation into suspected bribery and breach of trust. Kurz also denied any wrongdoing in that case.

His former chief of staff, Bernhard Bonelli, was tried along with Kurz and was convicted Friday of making a false statement to the parliamentary inquiry about his own involvement and that of Kurz in the selection of OeBAG supervisory board members.

He was given a six-month suspended sentence. Bonelli's lawyer also plans to appeal.