A suspected Turkish intelligence agent turned whistleblower who handed himself in to Austrian police claiming he had been ordered to assassinate a prominent politician has been deported before he can stand trial, it has emerged.
Feyyaz Öztürk, a 53-year-old Italian citizen of Turkish heritage, is still set to go on trial in Vienna on charges of spying for a foreign state next month. But he was released shortly before Christmas and deported to Italy, Austrian prosecutors confirmed.
Berivan Aslan, the Viennese politician Mr Öztürk claimed he was ordered to assassinate, accused the Austrian authorities of trying to brush the incident under the carpet.
“You cannot simply eliminate dangerous and extremist attitudes by deporting them, because they continue to exist and will organise themselves elsewhere,” Ms Aslan told the Telegraph.
She said she believes her “aggressors” will not be discouraged by the decision — an assessment that appears to be shared by Austria’s BVT intelligence service, which still classifies the threat to Ms Aslan as “real” and “latent”, according to a spokesman for the interior ministry.
Ms Aslan remains under police protection and only leaves her home for the most pressing appointments. “This situation massively restricts my freedom,” she said.
Mr Öztürk, by contrast, can move freely both inside and outside Italy following his deportation, and it is now likely his trial will have to be held in absentia. Contacted by the Telegraph, he said he had already left Italy and is now in North Africa.
The case has raised serious concerns over how far Turkey is prepared to go to silence its critics under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and whether it is ready to resort to assassinations on European soil.
Mr Öztürk handed himself in to Austrian authorities last year claiming he had been blackmailed by Turkey’s MIT intelligence service into taking part in an operation to assassinate Ms Aslan.
“It wasn’t important whether she got hurt or died,” he told Austrian police in his initial interrogation, according to a police report seen by the Telegraph. The aim, he claimed, was to “spread chaos” and for Ms Aslan and others to “get the message.”
The Turkish embassy in Vienna has denied the allegations and any links to Mr Öztürk.
An Austrian citizen of Kurdish heritage, Ms Aslan is a leading campaigner for Kurdish and women’s rights. Mr Öztürk also claimed he had been ordered to take part in a violent attack on Peter Pilz, a prominent Austrian politician and former party leader who has no Turkish or Kurdish roots but has been highly critical of the Erdogan regime.
Despite the seriousness of the charges against him, Vienna prosecutors confirmed that Mr Öztürk was released from custody on 21 December.
“It was assumed that remanding him further in custody would no have longer been appropriate considering the legal framework and the length of time he had already been held,” Nina Bussek, a spokesman for the prosecutors, said.
An interior ministry source told the Telegraph Austrian intelligence has opened investigations against a number of other suspects in connection with the case, without naming them.
One analyst suggested the alleged assassination plot may never have existed and the entire episode could have been a sophisticated psychological operation by Turkish intelligence.
“One should not underestimate the possibility of confusion and disinformation being sown here,” Thomas Riegler, intelligence expert at Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies (ACIPSS) said.
“It is also conceivable that the aim was to exert psychological pressure on Ms Aslan. Her freedom of movement has been restricted for months. She was muzzled.”