Austrian minister looks to tighten espionage law in response to concerns about foreign intelligence activities

Austrian Justice Minister Alma Zadic said on Thursday that she plans to tighten the country’s rules regarding espionage, which currently only explicitly prohibits activities directed against Austria itself, not activities targeting other countries or international organizations. Zadic’s push to tighten Austria’s laws comes amid the arrest of a former Austrian intelligence officer on allegations of spying, which has drawn attention to espionage activities in the country.

Austria is a member of the European Union with a policy of military neutrality. Its capital, Vienna, hosts several U.N. agencies and other international groups such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC. Austria’s criminal code currently states that anyone who “establishes or operates a secret intelligence service detrimental to the Republic of Austria or supports such an intelligence service in any way” faces a prison sentence of between six months and five years. It also prohibits establishing, operating or supporting a “military intelligence service” for “a foreign power or a supra- or international body,” which can carry a prison sentence of up to two years.

Zadic said in a statement to the Austria Press Agency that the country has long been accused of being an “island of the blessed” for intelligence services around the world and lamented that “gaps in the law so far have allowed foreign intelligence services to spy with impunity in Austria.” “We want to expand the espionage paragraphs so that, in the future, our law enforcement authorities can also act against foreign spies when they are not targeting Austria itself, but international organizations based here such as OPEC or friendly states,” she said.

Zadic is a member of the junior coalition party, the Greens, in Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s governing coalition. Interior Minister Gerhard Karner, a member of Nehammer’s Austrian People’s Party, told Oe1 radio he sees the need for tougher penalties for spying—but also renewed a call for authorities to be allowed to eavesdrop on calls via messenger services, something the Greens have opposed.