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Austria on guard as politician claims Turkish 'assassination plot'

Berivan Aslan is now under police protection after an alleged assassination plot
Berivan Aslan is now under police protection after an alleged assassination plot Johann GRODER APA/AFP/File
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Vienna (AFP)

While other candidates in Vienna's recent municipal elections were out campaigning, Green politician Berivan Aslan had to stay home due to what she says was an assassination plot with links to the Turkish state.

The former MP, who is of Kurdish origin and well known as an activist on Kurdish issues, says she has had police protection since details of the alleged plot came to light.

"A man presented himself at Austrian intelligence headquarters saying that he had been tasked with killing me," Aslan, 38, told AFP.

She added he "was known in high political circles in Turkey."

The man has been named in local media as Feyyaz Ozturk.

The Vienna prosecutors' department refused to comment on the case, saying that it was "classified", while the interior ministry said it was the subject of ongoing investigations.

As for Turkish authorities, they deny the man's allegations.

"The individual in question was never affiliated with, nor did he ever act on behalf of, the Turkish intelligence," a senior Turkish official told AFP.

The Turkish embassy in Vienna said in a statement that they had thoroughly researched the name Feyyaz Ozturk and found no connection to Turkish intelligence.

- 'There must be consequences' -

The government is nevertheless increasingly concerned over perceived Turkish influence in Austria and put in place a special investigative commission after attacks this summer on Kurdish protesters in Vienna, presumed to have been carried out by Turkish nationalist activists.

The Turkish state has long had a troubled relationship with its Kurdish minority that has intensified after fighting in the Kurdish majority southeast and a failed 2016 coup.

The alleged plot against Aslan recalls the case of three Kurdish activists killed in Paris in January 2013.

In that case French authorities probed whether the Turkish MIT intelligence services had been involved.

In a statement sent to AFP, Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said "if (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan and Turkey are trying to establish a systematic network of informers in Austria, there must be consequences."

According to former MP Peter Pilz, known for his campaigning on the issue of alleged Turkish influence, Ankara has more than 200 informers working on Austrian soil, with the network beefed up after the failed coup.

In recent years local media have reported cases of members of Austria's Turkish-origin community complaining of intimidation if they publicly express opposition to Erdogan and his government.

Official figures show 116,000 Turkish nationals are currently resident in Austria with an even greater number of Austrian citizens who have Turkish heritage.

- 'Turning a blind eye' -

After leaving frontline politics, Pilz founded an investigative news site, zackzack.at, where he has published articles based on material from the official investigation.

He says Ozturk was also suspected of having been forced to give false testimony to a Turkish court in a case involving an employee at the US consulate, Metin Topuz.

Topuz was convicted in June to nine years in prison for "aiding an armed terror group" that Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup.

According to documents partially published on zackzack.at, Ozturk told Austrian investigators: "They made me give evidence and put a blank piece of paper in front of me which I signed."

Austria has long vaunted its status as a neutral country, playing host to several UN and international organisations, but also has a reputation as a centre of spying.

"This would be a real escalation, if the Turkish intelligence services were starting to target Austrian political figures," says Thomas Riegler, espionage expert and associate researcher at Graz University.

Riegler says that up until now Austria has "turned a blind eye" to intelligence services operating on its territory "as long as the activities aren't directed against Austria's interests and don't concern Austrian citizens" but adds that this stance may be becoming more difficult to maintain.

He points to the expulsion of a Russian diplomat at the end of August as a reminder from Austrian authorities to spies not to overstep the mark.

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