Why the Gerhard Sabathil spy probe fell apart
How the espionage probe into former EU ambassador Gerhard Sabathil fell apart.
BERLIN — A dead ex-journalist, a blind Chinese dissident and a suspected spy codenamed “Johnny.”
These are just a few of the players in the motley cast of characters German counterintelligence assembled to build a case against Gerhard Sabathil, the former EU ambassador cleared last month of spying for China, in a high-profile investigation that heightened fears of Chinese infiltration in core European institutions and sent tremors across the Continent.
The collapse of the nearly year-long investigation underscores the difficulties Western authorities face in distinguishing legitimate business and academic dealings from espionage, as governments from Washington to Brussels have grown increasingly wary of Beijing’s heightened global ambitions and influence.
More immediately, the acknowledgement by Germany’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office that it couldn’t support a prosecution of Sabathil despite a lengthy police investigation that included extensive wiretaps is a major embarrassment for German authorities that raises serious questions about their modus operandi.
In a lengthy interview with POLITICO this week, Sabathil said the reason he ended up in the crosshairs of German intelligence was simple: “Incompetence.”
“That such a thing can happen in Germany with the Verfassungsschutz is a disgrace,” he said, referring to Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. “This was a comedy of errors.”
Though Sabathil was neither charged nor arrested, details of the probe were leaked to the German press even as he was being questioned by police. The publicity created a cloud of suspicion that cost the 66-year-old father of nine not just his good name and social life, but his livelihood. Within days of the allegations becoming public, he resigned from his position as a senior executive at EUTOP, a Munich-based lobbying firm, and has been unemployed ever since.
Prosecutors have yet to provide Sabathil and his lawyers full access to either their dossier on him or a detailed written explanation they drafted to justify dropping the case. Yet the facts that are known suggest investigators acted on thin evidence from dubious sources and exaggerated or twisted the details of what they discovered to support the conclusion that Sabathil was guilty of spying for the Chinese.
German authorities involved in the case — the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, the Verfassungsschutz and the foreign intelligence service, known as BND — all declined to answer questions for this article about what went wrong and why.
Nothing to hide
By the time German and Belgian police raided Sabathil’s residences and offices early on January 15, the diplomat-turned-consultant had been under electronic surveillance for more than a year, according to court filings.
The surprise dawn raids, people close to the operation say, were undertaken to find a smoking gun.
Dozens of police officers were involved in the searches from Brussels to Bad Kötzing, a small spa town in southeast Germany where Sabathil owns an apartment, collecting everything from family photos to the personal diaries of Sabathil’s Chinese partner, an academic with whom he has two young children.
That morning Sabathil and his partner, whose name POLITICO has opted not to publish, were taken in for questioning at separate locations. Police officers escorted Sabathil’s partner to her daughter’s kindergarten, where she dropped the child off. The police then drove her across town to the headquarters of Germany’s federal police, originally a Prussian army barracks, where she was questioned for eight hours, taking breaks to nurse her eight-month-old son. Unlike Sabathil, who was placed under official suspicion, his partner was considered a “witness.”
Though Sabathil’s lawyers, who weren’t present for his initial questioning, counseled him against speaking to the police, he decided to do so anyway, hoping that his full cooperation would bring a quick end to what he assumed was a grave misunderstanding.
“I didn’t have anything to hide,” he said.
Sabathil’s hopes of a quick resolution were quickly dashed. After police questioned him about his ties to China, they fingerprinted him and took his mugshot. They accused him of taking €70,000 in payment in exchange for his work, which they claimed included recruiting at least two other agents. As evidence, they cited a telephone conversation they had recorded between him and his estranged Czech wife in which he said he “also worked for others.”
Sabathil explained that the suspect money transfer was from his Chinese partner’s mother, who happened to be visiting Berlin at the time of the raids, for her granddaughter. He and his partner planned to invest the money in real estate. He said the comment to his Czech wife had been taken out of context during an argument over money.
Amid the questioning and the search of his apartment, Sabathil says the police forgot to pick his daughter up from kindergarten as they’d promised him, leaving her stranded there.
Despite those strains, his answers appear to have planted a seed of doubt in the minds of the investigators, and they decided not to arrest him as they’d originally intended. “We won’t be needing the arrest warrant,” Sabathil says they told him at the end of the discussion.
About two weeks later, he was questioned again, this time in the presence of his lawyer, Peter Gauweiler, a university acquaintance from Bavaria and one of Germany’s foremost jurists.
During the interrogation, investigators expressed particular interest in Sabathil’s connection to the Shanghai Institute for European Studies, a Chinese think tank that sponsored two of his trips to China for conferences.
Investigators alleged Sabathil met his handler, “Johnny,” through the institute, which they believed was a front for Chinese intelligence, according to investigation files seen by Sabathil’s legal team and described to POLITICO.
But the Chinese man investigators called “Johnny” used the name “Jimmy” in email correspondence with Sabathil (Chinese people often assume Western names for dealings with Americans and Europeans). While only a detail, the mistake proved to be an early sign that much of the evidence against Sabathil was slapdash.
Sabathil said that while Jimmy had managed the logistics and other organization of his trips, he wasn’t his “handler.”
Investigators further alleged that Sabathil recruited two German associates, luring them on trips to China sponsored by the Shanghai institute in the hope that “Johnny” could recruit them too. Only one of the men even made it to China. Though the man’s trip was sponsored by the Shanghai Institute, Sabathil did not accompany him there. (The two men, one a journalist and the other a PR executive, were probed along with Sabathil, and the investigations against them were also dropped. POLITICO has decided not to name them).
In China, as in many other countries, the lines between academia, think tanks and the intelligence world are fluid. But even if the Shanghai Institute for European studies is a front, as investigators allege, it’s one well established in German and European circles.
Before agreeing to travel to Shanghai, one of Sabathil’s associates contacted the German consulate there to enquire if the organization was legitimate and respected and was told it was, he says.
Just a month before the raids on Sabathil, Mingqi Xu, the institute’s president, delivered a speech on reforming the multilateral order at an event co-sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German foundation closely aligned with the Christian Democratic Union, the center-right party of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Shanghai event — “Belt and Road Initiative and Sino-European Strategic Cooperation” — was also attended by officials from the CDU and the European People’s Party, the center-right bloc in the European Parliament.
‘Everybody loves pandas’
German authorities haven’t disclosed the details of what led them to suspect Sabathil, but according to court filings seen by his legal team, the government’s case rested on two primary sources: Friedrich Kurz, a longtime friend of Sabathil’s with ties to the Verfassungsschutz, and a “well-informed intelligence service.”
A former journalist for German public broadcasting, Kurz had become, like Sabathil, a consultant. The firm he worked with, Berlin-based WMP Eurocom, specializes in “nation branding,” with a roster of sovereign clients that has included the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In 2018, Kurz developed a PR concept for China’s Belt and Road project, an effort to polish the country’s image in Germany, according to an article that appeared in German weekly Stern earlier this year.
Kurz’s idea: Swap the Chinese flags on trains arriving in Germany from China with pandas. “Everybody loves pandas,” he wrote, according to Stern.
As a journalist, Kurz had earned a checkered reputation. Colleagues accused him of exaggerating stories and even making things up, like a piece in the 1990s about a balloon that supposedly drifted from the German city of Hanover into a child’s hands in Bosnia.
It was Kurz, Sabathil says, who introduced him to the Shanghai Institute for European Studies. In June of 2017, the two men traveled together to Shanghai for a symposium on the upcoming German election, where they both delivered speeches. Sabathil and Kurz can be seen standing in the front row with other participants in a photograph on the institute’s website.
Sabathil describes Kurz as a close personal friend. The two met at university in Munich in the 1970s and had remained in contact.
Just what Kurz told German authorities about Sabathil isn’t clear. And it may well remain a mystery because Kurz was killed in car crash in March of 2019, about nine months before the allegations against Sabathil came to light. He was on his way to visit his sick mother in Bavaria when his car ran off the autobahn near Bayreuth, killing him and injuring his partner. The cause of the crash isn’t clear.
Kurz, whose longtime partner was a close aide to then-Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, was extremely well connected in Berlin. Among those who attended his funeral was Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.
Sabathil lawyer Gauweiler, who in addition to his legal practice was a prominent senior politician in Bavaria, delivered Kurz’s eulogy. The two men went to university together and had been friends for half a century.
“He was friendly to all because he knew that everyone faces their own battles,” Gauweiler said at the funeral.
Lost security clearance
Whether Kurz’s battles included reporting on Sabathil to the Verfassungsschutz is another mystery. Court documents make clear, however, that the Verfassungsschutz relied in part on his information to trigger the investigation.
“I can’t imagine he did this intentionally,” Sabathil said. “He was a good friend. I fully trusted him.”
Indeed, just a few years before his death, in 2016, Kurz had tried to save Sabathil’s career as a diplomat.
Sabathil, whose senior posts in his long career included stints as the EU’s chief representative in Berlin and heading the East Asia division of the EU’s foreign service in Brussels, had run into trouble.
Then the EU’s ambassador to South Korea, Sabathil had gotten into hot water for sharing an internal EU assessment on the state of the environment in China with his Chinese partner. The EU reported the breach to Germany’s interior ministry (national authorities are responsible for the security clearances of their nationals who work for EU institutions).
Kurz accompanied Sabathil to the interior ministry in Berlin to act as his representative and as a witness to the proceeding. Sabathil ended up losing his security clearance and, as a consequence, his position as an EU ambassador anyway. But Kurz’s role as Sabathil’s official representative in the matter is a big reason the espionage case against Sabathil was doomed from the beginning.
Under German law, people who serve in an official legal capacity for the accused cannot be called on to testify against him or her, even posthumously, as a witness. Neither the Verfassungsschutz nor the federal prosecutor’s office appears to have been aware of Kurz’s service for Sabathil when they opened the formal investigation against him.
As soon as Gauweiler made the connection, he knew the case was over and pushed for it to be dropped.
By March, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office began to have serious doubts of its own about whether Sabathil was guilty. In a letter to the Verfassungsschutz, the prosecutor complained that key transcripts of Sabathil’s tapped communications did not match the original audio. In fact, the unedited recordings tended to support Sabathil’s version of events, the prosecutor wrote.
But the Verfassungsschutz was relying on another source as well, referred to as a “a well-informed foreign intelligence service” in court documents. Sabathil believes the service can only be U.S. intelligence. Though he and his lawyers have no hard evidence to prove that claim, Germany, which has limited foreign intelligence capability, especially in Asia, does rely heavily on the U.S.
“I assume it’s not Iceland,” he said. “There’s only one friendly foreign service that matters, and that’s the U.S.”
Sabathil and his lawyers believe that U.S. intelligence saw him as an ideal vehicle to try to undermine plans by Chinese network supplier Huawei to install 5G networks in Europe, especially after his security clearance was revoked.
Washington has been lobbying European governments against using the equipment, arguing that it would expose their networks to Chinese subterfuge. Huawei was one of Sabathil’s biggest clients when he worked for EUTOP. Discrediting him would damage the company’s entire push into Europe, he argues.
In fact, a number of European countries, including the United Kingdom, buckled to U.S. pressure in recent months and decided to bar Huawei. But there’s no indication the Sabathil case played a role in those decisions.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As with the testimony from Kurz, details of what the foreign intelligence service provided against Sabathil remain sealed.
The testimony of one witness was shared with Sabathil’s legal team, however.
After news of the investigation against Sabathil broke in January, Su Yutong, a Chinese blogger living in exile in Berlin, contacted German authorities.
She said she knew Sabathil and his partner through Berlin’s network of Chinese dissidents. Sabathil and his partner, who wrote her doctoral thesis on human rights in China, had become friendly with Liao Yiwu, a prominent Chinese dissident author. Another friend was Liu Xia, the artist and widow of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
After the espionage allegations became public, Sabathil and his partner became personae non gratae in Berlin’s Chinese community.
Su told authorities that she had long harbored suspicions against Sabathil and his partner, whom she said “lies often.” One example she cited, according to court documents, was an interaction in 2013 between Sabathil’s partner, then working as an intern at the EU Parliament in Brussels, and a blind Chinese dissident named Chen Guangcheng.
Su claimed Chen (who fled to the U.S. in 2012 and recently drew attention for his ardent support for President Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention) told her in 2018 that Sabathil’s partner, who had served as an ad-hoc interpreter during his 2013 Brussels visit, had left out key passages of what the dissident had told MEPs. The implication: Sabathil’s partner had been acting in the service of the Chinese government to censor the dissident. Sabathil’s partner denies that she tried to deceive anyone or that she’s a Chinese agent.
Why authorities even bothered to share Su’s hearsay testimony isn’t clear, given that wasn’t nearly enough to implicate either Sabathil or his partner. But her testimony did offer them justification to delay the inevitable — an official end to the Sabathil investigation, which was quickly falling apart.
Contacted by POLITICO, Su confirmed that she had served as a witness against Sabathil. “I told the investigator what I knew,” she said in a written message, without providing further details.
She said it was difficult to reconcile how Sabathil could both work for Huawei, a company with deep ties to the China’s power structure, and also help Liu Xia, calling his behavior “divisive.”
But whatever one makes of the morality of Sabathil’s private and business dealings in and around China, they don’t appear to have been illegal. The main motivation for his engagement in China may be the most obvious – to make money.
Now that the investigation is over, Sabathil says his next battle is beginning — a lawsuit against the German government for damages. Despite his effective exoneration, his professional life is a shambles and his prospects of working again slim.
So far, the prosecutor’s office hasn’t given him much hope.
“Reparations will only be paid if the cost of the proven damage exceeds 25 euros,” it wrote after closing the investigation, referring to property damage during the searches.
Sabathil said he has no intention of letting up.
“I’ve nothing to lose,” he said.