VIENNA (Reuters) - An Austrian court on Tuesday found a retired army colonel guilty of spying for Russia for decades but sentenced him to just three years in prison and released him for having served half that.
The 71-year-old defendant, who has not been named and whose trial in Salzburg was held behind closed doors on national security grounds, denied handing over secret information but admitted explaining open-source material “like a foreign correspondent”, his lawyer said when the trial opened in March.
Prosecutors said that in the course of his at least 25-year career as a spy for Russian GRU military intelligence, with which he first came into contact during a foreign assignment in 1987, he was paid hundreds of thousands of euros.
The court found him guilty of charges including “betraying state secrets”, working for or helping “a foreign intelligence organisation to the detriment of Austria” and “premeditated divulgation of a military secret”, the court said in a statement late on Tuesday.
Those charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison but he was sentenced to just three and released for having served half that in pre-trial detention.
“The court took into account the recognition of the facts, the (defendant’s) advanced years and the absence of previous convictions as mitigating factors. The court came to the conclusion that the defendant no longer poses a threat,” a court spokesman said.
The case is embarrassing for neutral Austria, which conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has positioned as one of Russia’s closest allies in the European Union, aiming to act as a bridge between east and west.
Austria was in the minority of EU states not to expel any Russian diplomats over the poisoning in Britain of Russian former spy-turned-British-mole Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which London blames on Moscow. Russia denies the accusation.
Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Tom Brown