VIENNA: Austria’s former chancellor Sebastian Kurz insisted he was innocent as he went on trial Wednesday accused of having given false testimony, the latest in a series of scandals to rock the country.

Kurz is the highest-profile figure implicated in a corruption scandal, and the case marks the first time in more than 30 years that a former chancellor has stood trial.

Once hailed as a “wunderkind” of Europe’s conservatives, Kurz stepped down as chancellor two years ago following a string of allegations against him, including the improper use of public money.

It marked a spectacular fall of the charismatic hardliner, who in 2017, at the age of 31, had become the world’s youngest democratically elected head of government.

Kurz went on trial for having allegedly given false testimony in 2020 to a parliamentary committee probing numerous graft allegations.

“I hope for a fair process, and that in the end the accusations will be proven wrong,“ Kurz, 37, told reporters outside the courtroom before entering.

Dressed in a light shirt and dark suit, he condemned the “politicisation” of his case, adding that he was “confident” he would be acquitted.

If convicted, Kurz could face up to three years in jail.

- ‘Lied to the public’ -

The former chancellor -- who is on trial together with two others -- is accused of having downplayed his influence in appointing the head of a state-owned company.

Prosecutor Gregor Adamovic, in his opening statement in a courtroom packed with media, argued that “nothing was decided without Kurz”. He accused him of “lying to the general public” and “wanting to hide the truth”.

Chat messages leaked to the local media from the investigation files ahead of the trial suggested that Kurz discussed the appointment with the official, who in one message says “I’m so happy. I love my chancellor.”

Adamovic raised some of those leaked messages in his opening statement.

Prosecutors have said they plan to call about 20 witnesses, including Kurz’s former finance minister and other high-profile officials.

Prosecutors have so far failed to land convictions linked to the series of scandals that have rocked the Alpine country of nine million people since 2019.

The prosecution, as well as the court itself, are “being put to the test,“ Die Presse daily noted in an editorial this week.

- Return of the far-right -

In a separate case, prosecutors are investigating Kurz on suspicion of having embezzled public money to fund polls which were skewed to boost his image and to pay for favourable coverage to help his political rise.

Though Kurz -- who denies all accusations -- has stepped back, the conservative People’s Party (OeVP) continues to govern in a coalition with the Greens, but their approval ratings have plummeted.

This has played into the hands of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which polls suggest now has around 30 percent support ahead of elections next year.

With a new leadership, the party has managed to overcome the so-called “Ibizagate” scandal that engulfed it in 2019 and brought down Kurz’s first government.

His then vice-chancellor and far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache stepped down after the leaking of a video, filmed secretly on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza. It showed him offering public contracts to a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece in exchange for campaign help.

Despite having left politics, Kurz continues to make headlines. His social media posts regularly show his jet-setting lifestyle and meetings with conservative politicians.

In September, several movies about his political career were released almost simultaneously -- one critical and two others flattering. Kurz only gave interviews for the latter ones.

He is now involved in numerous private international enterprises. One is the launch of a cybersecurity company with the ex-head of Israel’s NSO Group, which makes the controversial Pegasus spyware. - AFP

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