The Syria Trials/
S2E8: Austrian Quagmires


The case against Khaled al-Halabi wasn't progressing in Austria. The dossier was bursting with documentary evidence - but a strong case also needs vital witness testimony. As the investigators work to add this, France finally realise that a senior Syrian intelligence officer slipped through their fingers. By the time they let the Austrian authorities know, will Halabi still be in Austria?

The Syria Trials is a 75 Podcast production. This episode is hosted by Fritz Streiff, and produced by Sasha Edye-Lindner, with research and editorial support from Mais Katt. It was mixed by Tobias Withers.

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Episode Transcript

Fritz Streiff: Thanks to the efforts of Syrian and Western civil society legal investigators, Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi had been found in Austria. But after CIJA, the Commission for Justice and Accountability, had handed in the evidence that they had gathered on the former Syrian intelligence chief, in January of 2016, they had been left hanging by the Austrian justice authorities. They didn't hear any update on the case for months. And months soon turned into years. CIJA was still unaware that Halabi was essentially being looked after by not only the Austrian intelligence services, but by the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, as well. But they did now know that things were even more complicated. Namely, that it would be difficult to prosecute Halabi for the crimes that he was suspected of under Austria's legal framework. 

Steve Kostas: We've learned a lot of lessons along the way. One is that command responsibility, crimes against humanity case, against Halabi is very strong. But Austria isn't the jurisdiction where you can bring that case. So we needed to look at what's available under Austrian law. That adaptation of the case has been key.

Fritz Streiff: The investigators would need to change tack, if they wanted to see Halabi brought to justice. 

Welcome to The Syria Trials: The Disappearing General. I'm Fritz Streiff and this is Episode Eight - Austrian Quagmires. 

Chair of CIJA’s Board of Commissioners, Ambassador Stephen Rapp, had met with the Austrian justice authorities in January 2016 to hand over the Halabi dossier. 

Ambassador Rapp: We didn't give them any witness statements at that initial meeting, but we said we have statements about Halabi being in charge at a particular time, having been engaged in certain torture acts, or at least his office having been used for that purpose. So we had some of that information, but we went back and supplemented that and kept adding to it. And nothing seemed to be happening. 

Fritz Streiff: CIJA had plenty of documentary evidence. That was their bread and butter. But the Halabi file was lacking in witness testimony. Finding more witnesses, those who had directly suffered at the hands of Halabi and his colleagues inside Branch 335, could be a way to help the case. And finding strong witnesses for international crimes cases was something that the legal NGO OSJI, the Open Society Justice Initiative, had made central to their Syria investigations. So in the Autumn of 2016, OSJI joined CIJA’s Halabi investigation. Steve Kostas had been leading OSJI’s work on Syria for two years by that point, since 2014.

Steve Kostas: I think we were all frustrated that it wasn't leading to an active investigation at that point. And then OSJI came to appreciate that really the prosecutors needed witnesses of specific nature, so eyewitnesses to crimes in order to proceed with their case. So we then decided to take a very witness based approach to building the case against him. 

Fritz Streiff: In order to find these witnesses, they would need the help of other Syrians from Raqqa - those that knew the city, that knew the intelligence officers and that knew the activists and civilians who had been detained and tortured in General Intelligence Branch 335, Halabi’s branch. Abdallah, the activist from Raqqa, was exactly the kind of person they needed. From his base in Turkey, he began working with CIJA in 2017.

At the time when you joined, what stage was the al-Halabi investigation at? 

Abdallah: At CIJA? I didn't focus on Halabi. I focus in general on collecting documents and witness statements.

Fritz Streiff: In Turkey?

Abdallah: In Turkey, yes. Collecting the documents from Syria to move them to Turkey, then to Europe. I moved a lot of documents from Syria. I was leading, like 25 investigators. Then by the end of 2017, I work with OSJI, Steve and Mark, and we focus on Halabi. 

Abdallah: After OSJI joined the Halabi investigation, Abdallah began working with Steve Kostas and criminal investigator Mark Watson. 

Steve Kostas: So from 2018 started to work with a group of Syrians who are from Raqqa, who were at the centre of, or very much involved in, the organising the demonstrations in Raqqa and were sort of a key part of that community in Raqqa. With their significant help or leadership, from 2018 until now, we've been identifying victims who are held in detention in Raqqa, who will participate in the case, bringing those victims to testify in Austria and engaging with the prosecutor in Austria to support his investigation. 

Fritz Streiff: And what was your role in that investigation and your responsibilities? 

Abdallah: The first time was like, we write down all the victims names and locations, contact details, all the witnesses living in Europe. And because I activist, I know all of them in person. So I put the most important witnesses on the table.

Fritz Streiff: Was it hard? What were the challenges, let's say?

Aballah: The challenge… Some people, they don't feel that the justice will come in the future because they disappointed. Some of them, they have family still living inside Syria. That's the biggest worry…  

Fritz Streiff: Security… 

Abdallah: Security for the witnesses. Some of them, they scared from the Assad regime, tried to target them in Europe. This is, I think, the most important challenges. 

Fritz Streiff: Agreeing to become a witness in a legal investigation that concerns atrocity crimes isn't an easy decision. It often involves telling and retelling and retelling experiences that happened to you that were usually very traumatic. To be able to determine a witness’s accounts’ value as possible evidence, investigators, prosecutors and lawyers will ask witnesses very in-depth questions, requiring them to revisit in excruciating detail an experience that might have been one of the most agonising of their life. The risk of re-traumatisation is always looming. Witnesses can also agree to be part of a case that then won't go to court for years, if ever. So after all of that, they're then left in limbo, with no guarantee of justice.

The legal investigators at CIJA and OSJI were very aware of the sensitivity with which any witness joining the Halabi case had to be treated. But you can never be too careful. So they decided to join with another legal NGO, one that takes all encompassing witness support very seriously, and one that was based in Austria, where the Halabi case had been raised.

Steve Kostas: We've had fantastic partnership with a group in Austria called the Centre for Enforcement of Human Rights International, or CEHRI. And we've really engaged with them in the support of the witnesses, both psychosocial and legal support for them.

Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek: We were addressed by the Open Society Justice Initiative in this regard, with the question whether we would like to cooperate to represent survivors of al-Halabi. I think it was around 2018, 19.

Fritz Streiff: Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek is one of the founders of CEHRI, the Centre for the Enforcement of Human Rights International. By this stage, OSJI had found many survivors of Branch 335 who could provide direct witness testimony, thanks in large part to the work of Abdallah.

Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek: We got in contact through OSJI with the witnesses and we assisted to take their summary statement. Of course, taking into account the risk of re-traumatisation. I have to explain further, that CEHRI’s work always entail psychological support. What means that we want to avoid any re-traumatisation and we also see the need of therapeutic justice in the process. So it's not only about legal litigation before the office of the prosecutor, or them before the courts, but also enhancing the actual quality of the life of the survivors as much as we can, through psychological support and medical support. 

Fritz Streiff: Tatiana and her team employ certain techniques when interviewing witnesses, in order to avoid or at least minimise re-traumatisation. 

Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek: There's always an expert present who takes care of the witness. And I wouldn't go into too much detail in order to avoid traumatisation. And in addition, there should be only one statement, decisive statement, in the investigation in order to avoid any possible contradiction, which of course is always possible if you're talking about severe crimes which happened several years ago. 

Fritz Streiff: A careful approach to taking witness testimony was paramount when talking to witnesses who had been detained and interrogated at Branch 335. 

Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek: Khaled al-Halabi was the director of the Branch 355 office of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate in Raqqa. So he was responsible for every torture and other crimes which did happen in this branch. I'm speaking about every kind of bodily harm, sexual violence and the use of torture tools. This is covered by the statements of the witnesses. 

Fritz Streiff: As CIJA, OSJI and CEHRI worked on adding vital witness testimony to the Halabi dossier, the French authorities were finally catching up with the fact that a senior Syrian intelligence officer had slipped through their fingers. Colonel Eric Emeraux had become the head of the French Central Office for the Fight against Crimes against Humanity in 2017 - known also as OCLCH. The investigators at OCLCH work on catching the perpetrators of international crimes, such as crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of torture. If the perpetrators are on French territory, like Khaled al-Halabi was, the Office can take action. Halabi’s file landed on Eric's desk in the spring of 2018. But Halabi’s asylum interview had taken place way back in 2014. Why has it taken so long for Halabi’s file to make it from OFPRA, The French Office for Refugees and Stateless People, to OCLCH, Eric's office?

Eric Emeraux: I think that it's because this office OFPRA has to manage a lot of cases like that, because we receive 60 or 70 cases after that date, 2015. There were so many cases in fact. 

Fritz Streiff: “That date” in 2015 Eric refers to is the date since the French immigration services, so OFPRA, have been required to inform OCLCH of any case in which they have refused asylum protection to somebody due to having reasons to believe that this applicant may have committed an international crime. 

Eric Emeraux: Because of that law, in fact, OFPRA, this office, they have to send information to the prosecutor. And the prosecutor open the file, and so we investigate on that people. 

Fritz Streiff: Eric and his team of investigators at OCLCH began investigating Halabi. 

Eric Emeraux: The first step is to check if the guy is in France. That's why we ask for driving licence, for example, flats, bank account. So if we found that people and we consider that he’s in France, we can go on with the investigation. If not, you have to stop. So we have to give the information to the prosecutor and prosecutor decides what to do in that case. When we realised that Halabi was no more in France, so we have to stop the investigation, to give the file back to the prosecutor. And that's it. 

Fritz Streiff: It had only taken Eric's office a couple of months to realise that Halabi was no longer in France.

Eric Emeraux: We can investigate if the perpetrator is in France. If not, we are not able to investigate. We were really frustrated regarding that case because of course Halabi, he has a lot of victims in France and so we would like to make some investigation regarding that guy. But when we realised that he was in Austria, everything was closed.

Fritz Streiff: France might not have been able to start an investigation into Halabi themselves, but they could inform the authorities of the country that their perpetrator was now in, who he was and what they had on him.

Eric Emeraux: In such case, we used to give the information to the country in which the guy is supposed to be hiding. And so that's what we did, with the Austrian authorities. How I explain, it’s not police to police information. In fact, it is the information given by the prosecutor to the prosecutors. And now because, you know, we are, I mean, war crimes units, European war crimes unit, and the prosecutors and the judge (investigative judge), we are in a European genocide network. So we used to have some good links with the European countries and unit. So we exchange a lot of information through this genocide network. 

Fritz Streiff: Ambassador Steven Rapp.

Ambassador Rapp: At that point, there was a fair amount of interest in the case still in France. Eric Emeraux, who is then the head of, essentially head of the War Crimes Investigation unit for the French Police Judiciaire, for international crimes. He put out a want notice for him, not an arrest notice, but essentially an indication that if he were to cross a controlled border, that there was interest in him and that he should be held until that was resolved and a contact was made. 

Fritz Streiff: It is often said that the wheels of justice turn slowly. But in this case they moved in slow motion. When Colonel Emeraux put out the want notice, Halabi had been in Austria for three years. After reportedly first living in a flat that belonged to the father in law of one of the Austrian intelligence agents who was looking after him, Halabi, according to Der Spiegel, moved into a four room apartment in the 16th District of Vienna. The monthly rent, nearly €1,000, was paid for by the BVT, the Austrian Intelligence, and the Mossad. 

For three years, it seems the BVT hadn't told Austrian prosecutors that they had brought the highest ranking Syrian intelligence officer known to be on European soil, into the country and that they were more than lending a helping hand. And yet it wasn't until now, in 2018, that the BVT and the Mossad's Operation White Milk, was revealed. 

Journalist at German Weekly Der Spiegel, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt, worked on an investigation into the Halabi story.

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: I think as far as I know, it ended in October 2018. In 2018, France reached out to prosecutors in Vienna and they asked through Europol, if someone knows about the whereabouts about Halabi. It went out to all the member states of the European Union, including Austria, and the French they wrote that Halabi and officials who were under his control in Raqqa were responsible for torture, use of electrical shocks and other forms of abuse. So I think actually that's when Vienna prosecutors and also ministry officials really woke up that, okay, we should look at this again more seriously. 

Fritz Streiff: By October 2018, the BVT had ended its collaboration with the Mossad. Operation White Milk was over. So what would happen now to Khaled al-Halabi? 

Well, just one month later, in November 2018, the Austrian police, along with BVT officers, visited Halabi’s spacious Vienna apartment. 

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: Some police stormed the apartment of Halabi and looked for him, but they found nothing but rotten food. So actually, where Halabi went in 2018, I'm still not sure until this day.

Fritz Streiff: The disappearing general had once again disappeared, and it seemed he left in a hurry. 

Ambassador Rapp: The next big knowledge that we had in the case would have been, I think I'm correct, in the fall of 2018. This case leaked in the press in Austria, and at that time, at least the reporters said that it's certainly been in Austria even the time we've come in 2016. I think that he was believed to have gone to Russia and come back some time during his stay in Vienna. And, you know, there was a question of whether he was still there. And we had thought that perhaps with the leak of the case, he might have gone runner at that particular point.

Fritz Streiff: Where had Halabi gone this time? And what would happen to the case against him in Austria if he was no longer in the country? The investigators continued their work. The witness statements they had gathered had now significantly expanded the Halabi dossier, and they submitted these statements to the Austrian prosecutor's office at the beginning of 2019, adding to the pressure that they finally act. Lawyer at CEHRI, the Centre for the Enforcement of Human Rights International, Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek.  

Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek: We then submitted their statements together with legal statements, in order to convince the office of the Prosecutor to investigate effectively on this case. Then the prosecutor summoned the witnesses and took their detailed statements. So this was one of the essential contribution to the investigation because it's the most important and direct evidence. And this is what the investigation proceedings missed until them. 

Fritz Streiff: Then, in May 2019 the Austrian Government collapsed after the so-called “Ibiza scandal”. Videos were leaked of the deputy chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom party, Heinz-Christian Strache, talking to a make-belief niece of a Russian oligarch in a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza. He was suggesting he could offer lucrative public contracts in exchange for campaign support. 

Ambassador Rapp: That raised issues about the Russian influence in that government. In 2019, I sought a meeting with the then interim justice minister, Jabloner, and I met with him and in the meeting, included this fellow Pilnacek, who'd been in the meeting back in January of 2016. Essentially the number two individual in the Justice Ministry, someone who is directly involved in these sort of international relations sorts of cases and in coordination with the national prosecutor. And had a meeting with him, I think, in September of 2019. And, you know, specifically made the point that I feared political interference in this case and that during this time period when there was an interim government, but an interim government with full authority, that they should make sure that this case was actively pursued and that there was no obstruction, and particularly that it had the resources that it required. 

Fritz Streiff: The message Ambassador Rapp delivered was clear - the Austrian justice authorities needed to prioritise investigating the Halabi case, in order to avoid even the impression of any potential political interference or obstruction of justice. 

Ambassador Rapp: And he listened to me very respectfully. Pilnacek kept saying, Well, can you say he's really in the country? Do you have new proof that he's in the country? And I then said, wait a second, he has been in of the country. We've had reports that he's here and he went to Russia. He returned. Everything indicates that he is still here. But let me ask you this, If he were in this country at the time your formal investigation began, based upon his presence in the country and then he departed the country, would that deny you jurisdiction of the case, would that defeat the investigation? And he admitted no. I said, well, then that's irrelevant. You know, we need to have this case actively pursued. 

Fritz Streiff: Despite assurances that the case would be pursued,  and despite Rapp and the rest of the team seeking further meetings with the Austrian justice authorities, the Halabi case still didn't seem to be progressing. Even if it now seemed that Halabi was definitely still in Austria.

The Halabi dossier had documentary evidence and witness testimony. All reports pointed to Halabi still being in Austria. The country had a sufficient legal framework to pursue the case and was no longer being blocked by the interference of its own domestic intelligence services trying to protect the suspect perpetrator. And yet Halabi still hadn't been apprehended. He still wasn't on trial. But another trial in Austria was about to start. That's next time in Episode Nine of The Syria Trials.

This was Episode Eight of The Syria Trials: The Disappearing General. I am Fritz Streiff, and we hope you've been enjoying this new season of the podcast. You can help us spread the word by telling a friend in one of those, Hey, what are you listening to right now, situations. And leaving us a five star review and comment also really helps to reach more listeners. Don't forget to subscribe as episodes are released weekly. And if you're also an Arabic speaker or if you know any, check out our sister series in Arabic. You can find us on socials @75podcasts or on our website, Thank you very much for listening.