The case of an Austrian-Jewish historian who is behind bars for a restitution-related crime he claims he did not commit took a new turn Wednesday when Austria’s Supreme Court turned down his appeal against a fine for fraud.
Stephan Templ, 55, was convicted of hiding the existence of an aunt — also eligible for compensation — when seeking reparations on behalf of his 80-year-old mother for a family building confiscated by the Nazis.
In rejecting his appeal against a 550,000 euro (more than $600,000) fine levied for defrauding the state, the court said that as a result of Templ’s crime, his mother had received double the money due to her.
A vocal and prominent critic of Austria’s Holocaust-era conduct and the author of a book detailing Viennese real estate confiscated by the Nazis from Jews and never returned, Templ himself had petitioned for a family building’s return on behalf of his mother.
The aunt, whose existence Templ was accused of hiding, would have been eligible to receive a 12th share of the building’s ownership and this in turn would have passed to the state had it known of her existence, the authorities charged.
Templ began serving a one-year prison sentence in October. An original three-year term was reduced to one year on appeal.
On Saturday, however, the UK’s Guardian newspaper revealed that in December — three years after first requesting access to the offices of the Austrian restitution organization, the General Settlement Fund (GSF), Templ’s legal team discovered the restitution claim forms Templ had filled in.
The paper said the forms showed Templ had made the authorities aware of the aunt’s existence in 2003 and that he had written his aunt’s name and address on an application form six times.
It was “outrageous for Austria to claim that Templ hid the existence of his aunt when her name is mentioned six times in documents submitted by him to the [GSF] panel,” Templ’s lawyer Robert Amsterdam told the Guardian.
Despite this, GSF representatives testified during Templ’s trial that they did not know of the aunt’s existence. The judge ruled that Templ had deliberately withheld information about her, and accused him of “damaging the Republic of Austria.”
“From the first look at this case, we thought it was political, and had nothing to do with the law or a sense of justice, but everything to do with singling out this Jewish troublemaker,” Amsterdam said. “This entire case is predicated on a legal fiction – the state has never been damaged and it’s an absolutely historic obscenity for Austria to claim this is the case.”
Convinced that Templ is being kept in jail because of his efforts to publicize Austria’s record on Jewish property restitution, Amsterdam is petitioning against Austria on behalf of Templ with the United Nations human rights council, the Guardian reported.
Templ told the Guardian: “The indictment is in tatters, so I don’t understand why they don’t release me. Apart from the fact they should never have put the victim of the [property] theft behind bars in the first place, it’s now six weeks since this new evidence came to light and the authorities do nothing. It’s further proof of what a farce the whole case is, as I’ve said all along.”
A spokesperson for the GSF denied that the organization knew about Templ’s aunt. Austria’s justice ministry declined to respond to repeated requests for comment by the UK paper.
It was not clear whether Amsterdam would be pushing for a re-trial.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.