VIENNA An Austrian opposition lawmaker accused Turkey on Tuesday of operating an informer network via its embassy in Vienna that he said targets critics of President Tayyip Erdogan, promotes his policies and receives payments from Ankara.
Peter Pilz, from the Austrian Greens, said he had sent documents to the police detailing the activities of the ATIB, an umbrella organisation headed by the religion attache at Turkey's embassy that oversees dozens of mosques in Austria.
"The ATIB umbrella group is an instrument of hard, ruthless and, in my view, legally unacceptable Turkish government politics in Austria," Pilz told a news conference.
ATIB and the Turkish foreign ministry both rejected Pilz's accusations. The ministry urged Vienna to avoid any measures that might harm bilateral ties, already strained by Austria's opposition to Turkey's bid to join the European Union.
Pilz said Muslim imams sent by Ankara to work for ATIB were providing information in particular about followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding an abortive coup in Turkey last July.
ATIB also monitors Turkish Kurds, Turkish opposition politicians and journalists in Austria, Pilz said.
Such activities could breach Austrian law on intelligence operations and foreign financing of a religious body and also violate ATIB's statutes as a registered society, he added.
The documents sent to the Austrian police reveal communication between the religion attache at the Turkish embassy in Vienna and Turkey's state-run religious affairs directorate, or Diyanet, in Ankara, Pilz said.
In a statement, Turkey's foreign ministry said: "We absolutely reject these allegations. We urge Austrian officials to act with reason and to refrain from statements that would harm Turkish-Austrian relations and the peace of the Turkish community in Austria."
ATIB said in a separate statement that as an Austrian body it did not tolerate any foreign interference.
Spokesmen for Austria's Chancellery and interior ministry, which oversee the implementation of the relevant laws, said their experts were looking into the matter. The file has not yet reached the prosecution, a spokeswoman said.
In a similar case, Germany's domestic spy agency launched an investigation last month into possible spying by Turkish clerics following a complaint by a German Green politician.
A spokesman for Austria's foreign ministry said the Turkish embassy had informed it last week that its religion attache, Fatih Mehmet Karadas, would end his activities in Vienna "soon", without giving a reason. The embassy had no immediate comment.
Karadas told an Austrian newspaper in an interview published on Sunday that ATIB had not investigated people's private lives, but said it had a duty to check whether people of Turkish origin in Austria had been "radicalised" by Gulen.
"That's why it's legitimate for us to do research and deliver reports in order to protect our fellow citizens and to protect the Austrian people," Karadas said.
Gulen denies any involvement in last summer's coup attempt, in which at least 240 people were killed.
Since the failed coup Turkey has arrested tens of thousands of people over suspected ties to Gulen in a wide-ranging crackdown criticised by Austria and other EU nations.
(Reporting By Shadia Nasralla; additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Gareth Jones)