German prosecutors have dropped their investigation into Gerhard Sabathil, the former EU envoy to South Korea, after failing to substantiate allegations that he spied for China’s intelligence agency.
The investigation’s collapse may stoke debate over whether European fears about Chinese security threats are sometimes excessive, as debate rages over whether to allow companies such as Huawei access to sensitive communications networks.
The Munich law firm representing Mr Sabathil, Gauweiler & Sauter, said it had been informed by Germany’s chief federal prosecutor that the probe into him had not confirmed the suspicion of espionage, and had for that reason been discontinued.
“This is a real victory for our client,” said Dörthe Korn of Gauweiler & Sauter. “In our view there was never any evidence to justify such an investigation.”
A flamboyant figure with a predilection for colourful bow-ties, Mr Sabathil was a highly experienced diplomat who served as EU ambassador to Seoul, Oslo and Berlin and as the EU diplomatic service’s director for East Asia and the Pacific.
In 2016, just a year into his posting in South Korea, German authorities revoked his security clearance and he returned to Germany. That move was linked to concerns arising over his relationship with Shen Wenwen, a specialist in China-EU comparative politics and international relations, two people familiar with the matter have said they were told. Ms Shen has not been accused of any offence.
Then in January this year German investigators searched nine offices and homes in Germany and Belgium as part of a probe targeting three unnamed individuals. European officials confirmed that one of these was Mr Sabathil.
German media reports said prosecutors suspected him of operating as an “informant and recruiter” for Chinese foreign intelligence. They alleged he sold information to a Chinese spy called “Johnny” who worked for the Shanghai Institute for European Studies.
This came soon after Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, warned that Beijing was “increasingly seeking to recruit people from western countries either in their homelands, in China or over social media as informers or agents”.
Mr Sabathil hit back at the allegations. “My private and public life has been destroyed by a technically slipshod investigation,” he told German media in May. “My relations with China are all clean.” He said he led the EU-China human rights dialogue, and the Chinese knew how critical he was of Beijing. “For the Chinese I was a notorious hardliner,” he said.
While the searches in January made waves, it soon became clear that the investigation had run into the sand. Mr Sabathil’s lawyers said prosecutors had themselves expressed doubts about the validity of some of the evidence, saying transcripts of phone calls tapped by the Verfassungsschutz had edited out details that would have exonerated Mr Sabathil. The federal prosecutor’s office declined to comment.
Klemens Joos, chief executive of the lobby firm EUTOP which Mr Sabathil joined in 2017 after leaving the diplomatic service, welcomed the decision to stop the investigation, “because it confirms that the accusations against Gerhard Sabathil were groundless.”
“It is regrettable that the untrue accusations against [him] were ever able to enter the public domain,” he added.
The collapse of the investigation may also further stoke debate over whether European fears about Chinese security threats are always justified. There have been several instances in which western authorities — particularly in the US — have been criticised for their undue suspicion of people with Chinese connections.
Worries over influence-buying in Europe have been triggered by cases such as the scandal at Prague’s Charles University last year over secret Chinese payments to four of its faculty members.
In September, it emerged that a former British spy and ex-European Commission official was under investigation by UK and Belgian intelligence agencies over a suspected influence-buying operation by China.
Fraser Cameron, who retired from the commission in 2006 to pursue a second career in think-tanks and consultancy, has denied any wrongdoing. He has also commented that there is “a bit of a China paranoia thing going on at the moment” in some European official circles.
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