- Sources name ex-diplomat after German authorities raid flats and offices on Wednesday
- Investigation concerns alleged link with the Ministry of State Security, China’s top foreign intelligence unit
Gerhard Sabathil, the European Union's former ambassador to South Korea, has been identified as the subject of a German probe into alleged spying activities for China's Ministry of State Security, according to three European sources.
The investigation, which has sent shock waves through Beijing, Berlin and Brussels, came to light after German authorities raided the flats and offices of Sabathil and two other individuals on Wednesday. German police have made no arrests. Sabathil could not immediately be reached for comment.
A dual citizen of Germany and Hungary, Sabathil left diplomacy in 2017 to join the European lobbying firm Eutop.
Eutop's lawyer, Christian Schertz, said in an emailed response to the South China Morning Post's questions: "Given that the circumstances described by you do not concern the activities of our client, we see no reason for our client to comment."
German publication Focus Online reported on Wednesday that the German attorney general had withdrawn the application for an arrest warrant against the former diplomat.
At the heart of the investigation is the alleged link between the German ex-diplomat and the Chinese security ministry, the top counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence unit in China. Several Western governments have raised concerns about Beijing using espionage to influence policy, as China expands its political and economic reach around the world.
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Security sources said German authorities began an investigation last year after receiving information from the intelligence community. The investigators then listened to telephone calls and tracked three suspects' travel records, according to German newspaper SUddeutsche Zeitung.
Its report, which did not name any suspects, said a German ex-diplomat provided the Chinese ministry with economic and private information. During a trip to China, the ex-diplomat appeared to have held meetings with a so-called executive officer of the Ministry of State Security, Zeitung said.
Sabathil was recalled from his ambassadorial stint in Seoul in 2016, just a year into his posting, after his security clearance was revoked, according to The Washington Post. Before that, he was director for East Asia and the Pacific at the Brussels headquarters of the European External Action Service, the diplomatic corps of the EU.
He was also affiliated with the College of Europe's postgraduate institute of European studies, whose main campus is in Bruges, Belgium. His profile page at the college reads: "Even though this profile continues to exist, this person is no longer working at the College of Europe."
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The work history of Sabathil, who was previously ambassador to Norway and Iceland and led the EU representative office in Germany, matches the details published by Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, which first reported on the investigation, without disclosing any names of suspects.
The magazine said the ex-diplomat in question had held several ambassadorial positions in the EU and leadership positions in Brussels, and had ended his diplomatic career in 2017.
A lobbyist hired by this former diplomat also acted as an informant for the Chinese, it is understood. A third suspect is alleged to have agreed to provide information in the future, according to the Der Spiegel report.
In total, nine addresses were raided on Wednesday in Berlin, Brussels and the German states of Bavaria and Baden-WUrttemberg.
Markus Schmitt, a spokesman for the German federal prosecutors, confirmed this week that an investigation was taking place into "intelligence agent activity".
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