A former EU diplomat who reportedly spied on for china accused the German authorities of “negligence, stupidity and ignorance” and said he will demand millions of euros in compensation from the German state for “having ruined his life”.
German prosecutors have dropped their investigation into Gerhard Sabathil last month, after failing to sufficiently substantiate claims he worked for Chinese intelligence.
In an interview with the Financial Times, the former EU envoy to South Korea said investigators “just made up things, manipulated facts and built a story out of half-truths and misunderstandings.”
He said he would demand a “small seven-figure sum” from the German state. “I was deprived of four years of salary,” he says. “I was really burnt out and I don’t know if I can work again. My reputation, my network, my circle of friends, everything has been destroyed. “
A flamboyant figure with a penchant for colorful bow ties, Mr Sabathil has served as EU Ambassador to Seoul, Oslo and Berlin and Director of the EU’s diplomatic service for East Asia and the Pacific. In 2017, he left to join a lobbying firm, EUTOP.
In January of this year, German prosecutors launched searches of his office and home, accusing him of acting as an “informant and recruiter” for Chinese foreign intelligence. They alleged that he had agreed to pass information on to a Chinese spy called “Johnny” who worked for the Shanghai Institute for European Studies (SIEC), a think tank. Investigators believe the institute, where Sabathil lectured on German politics in 2017, has ties to Chinese intelligence.
The case highlighted escalating tensions in China-West relations, exacerbated by the US-China trade war, friction over Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and the crackdown on telecom equipment supplier Huawei. . European governments are increasingly concerned about alleged Chinese influence operations and fear that current espionage laws are inadequate to tackle the problem.
Meanwhile, as tensions proliferate, people with connections to China complain that they are being treated with undue suspicion by Western authorities.
Mr. Sabathil said the lawsuit against him was “a product of the new fear of China”. “Anyone who doesn’t want to ride this wave [and] joining the fight is immediately suspect, ”he said. “Do you remember when Kaiser Wilhelm mentioned the yellow peril? Envy led to fear.
The case coincided with growing alarm in Berlin over a perceived increase in Chinese espionage activity in Germany. In its latest annual report, the Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, said China is increasingly trying to enlist Germans “with high-level access” as spies, luring them with “the prospect of ‘attractive remuneration’.
He also cautioned against Chinese think tanks, saying some were used by the country’s spy agencies to establish contact with students, diplomats and businessmen whom they then tried to recruit as agents. These institutions “serve to collect sensitive information. . . choose appropriate targets and provide cover for espionage activities, ”he said.
But the investigation into Mr. Sabathil came to nothing. According to documents seen by the FT, prosecutors themselves have expressed doubts about the validity of some of the evidence. In particular, they pointed out “significant discrepancies” between the transcripts of telephone calls overheard by the Verfassungsschutz and the actual tapes of the calls, claiming that elements which could have exonerated Mr. Sabathil had been omitted.
However, a person familiar with the investigation insisted that the full audio files be made available to prosecutors. The person also said the suspicions against Mr Sabathil had not been completely allayed. However, these were insufficient to lead to a conviction in the case.
Officially, the investigation was closed because it did not confirm the alleged espionage activities “with the certainty required for an indictment,” said a spokesman for the federal prosecution. He declined further comments.
Mr Sabathil came to the attention of authorities in 2015 after passing an EU document classified as confidential to his partner, a Chinese scholar – a decision he recognized as a “mistake”. After that, Germany withdrew his security clearance and in 2016 he was recalled to Brussels from South Korea, where he had been sent from the EU. Shortly after, he left the diplomatic service.
But he denied the allegation that he spied on the Chinese as “absolute nonsense.” Among investigators, he said: “These are people who have watched too many crime thrillers, had nightmares and fantasies, and then made up stuff.” A spokesperson for the Verfassungsschutz declined to comment.
Additional reporting by Michael Peel and Edward White