Justice and Accountability drowned in “Operation White Milk”

Justice and Accountability drowned in “Operation White Milk”

Palais Trautson, Austrian Ministry of Justice (c) Thomas Ledl

In mid-November, Austrian media shed light on a scandal involving Austrian authorities and the Israeli intelligence service Mossad. Leaked documents from, Austria’s national intelligence service (BVT) (the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Fight against Terrorism), reveal that the BVT made a deal, so-called “Operation White Milk,” with the Israeli Mossad by agreeing to provide shelter and grant asylum to Khaled Al-Halabi. The motives behind Israel’s activism in this cooperation as well as the benefits for Austria, if there were any at all, remain unclear. As head of Branch 335 of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) in Raqqa from 2009 until 2013, Al-Halabi was involved in crimes against humanity, torture, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and war crimes. According to witnesses, working as Brigadier General, Al-Halabi not only knew about such crimes being committed, he even encouraged subordinates to use violence and torture detainees.

Nonetheless, public discussion is treating Operation White Milk as an internal national scandal and is not grappling with Austria’s role in effectively undermining international efforts to achieve accountability for an alleged perpetrator of the Syrian conflict. This might be due to the fact that the discussion is only taking place in Austria, partly because it has been covered only in German-speaking media.  However, Operation White Milk is not only a national scandal. It has severe impacts on justice and accountability for perpetrators in the Syrian conflict. Al-Halabi seems to have escaped accountability since he has not been seen since 2018 and his current whereabouts are unknown. This article provides a general overview of the current discussion in Austria, so that English and Arabic speaking audiences can follow this case. SJAC wishes to shed light on the international dimension of Operation White Milk and call on all states to put justice and accountability ahead of national interests. International cooperation and transparency in domestic proceedings are key to fighting impunity for international crimes, especially in an ongoing conflict where perpetrators can only be brought to justice through foreign domestic courts.

Chronology of a Debacle

The following chronology is based on Austrian media reports, which derive their information from leaked documents of the relevant Austrian authorities. Even though SJAC does not entirely agree with the style of these media reports, as will be discussed below, it considers the documents and sources to be credible.

February/March 2013

Al-Halabi left Raqqa. In his asylum request with the Austrian authorities, he allegedly said that members of the opposition helped him escape before he entered Turkey by foot.
April/May 2013 Al-Halabi traveled to Jordan where he applied for a visa at the French embassy.
February 27, 2014 According to his own testimony, Al-Halabi paid $12,000 to traffickers to get to Europe and then France, where he officially sought asylum.
Spring 2015 The deputy director of the Austrian BVT at the time allegedly met with high-ranking Mossad representatives to reach an agreement regarding Al-Halabi.
June 12, 2015 According to his own testimony, a friend put Al-Halabi on a train to Austria.
June 13, 2015 According to leaked documents from the BVT, “the package was delivered”. Al-Halabi was allegedly accompanied by two Mossad employees when he entered Austria through the Bavarian-Austrian border crossing in Walserberg. Al-Halabi was handed over to the BVT and brought to a suburb of Vienna.
June 15, 2015 The BVT sent Al-Halabi to Traiskirchen where his first interview concerning his asylum in Austria took place.
June 2015 Al-Halabi got to Vienna. The BVT allegedly organized a flat which was payed for by “Stelle 5” [Division 5], how BVT refers to Mossad in internal correspondence.
December 2, 2015 Khaled Al-Halabi is granted asylum in Austria. He also got a so-called conventional passport, a passport which can be requested by people who are granted asylum in Austria and allows them to travel internationally.
January 2016 The Austrian Ministry of Justice received a letter from The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) in which CIJA told them about their concerns regarding Al-Halabi’s involvement in the commission of war crimes.
January 29, 2016 In a meeting between CIJA representatives, officials from the Austrian Ministry of Justice and the BVT, CIJA spoke about grounds to believe that Al-Halabi was involved in the commission of war crimes. CIJA also presented Facebook and skype log-files which showed that Al-Halabi was present in Vienna at the time. According to leaked documents, CIJA however did not provide concrete evidence regarding Al-Halabi’s involvement in war crimes.
April 2016 The Austrian prosecution division in Vienna created a secret file (Verschlussakt) on Khaled Al-Halabi.[1] Shortly after, CIJA provided witness testimonies (torture survivors and insider witnesses) to the Austrian authorities. The Austrian prosecutor commenced preliminary investigations concerning Al-Halabi’s involvement in acts of torture. A judicial request for investigations into Al-Halabi’s current whereabouts was issued through the Schengen Information System (SIS) concerning allegations of war crimes against Al-Halabi.
June 15, 2016 Representatives of the BVT and Mossad decided to continue their cooperation after a meeting.
July 2, 2017 French authorities issued a request on Khaled Al-Halabi via Europol, regarding substantiated allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
December 29, 2017 Al-Halabi was denied asylum in France.
May 30, 2018 France issued a judicial request for an investigation into the whereabouts of Al-Halabi through Europol. The division for extremism within the Austrian BVT seeks to start investigations.
August 1, 2018 The BVT officer in charge of Al-Halabi receives a call from the Israeli liaison officer who says that his office met with the deputy director of the BVT the previous day when it was allegedly decided that “white milk,” as Al-Halabi was called, will be brought outside Austria.
October 2, 2018 The BVT terminated its cooperation with the Israeli partner authorities.
October 18 – 19, 2018 Last activities on Al-Halabi’s Austrian bank account.
October 25, 2018 The Austrian Federal Criminal Police (BKA) issues a secret request for investigation into the whereabouts of Al-Halabi.
November 27, 2018 Officers of the Austrian BKA storm Al-Halabi’s flat in Vienna. However, he is not present.

Mislead public discussion

One of the first to publish a story on Operation White Milk in October 2020 was an Austrian news-blog whose director is known to have connections to the conservative and right-wing political spectrum. The blog calls Al-Halabi the “torture general” and is generally lacking neutral language as well as proper research on Syrian detention facilities.[2] Based on this article, right wing populist parliamentarians issued an official inquiry to the minister of interior on Operation White Milk. However, their request mainly focuses on who knew what, the costs of the entire operation, possible similar ongoing operations, threats to the Austrian population, and possible damage to Austria’s international reputation. It ignores entirely the need to bring Al-Halabi to justice for the crimes in which he participated. Such coverage is not exclusive to a certain political perspective. The liberal Austrian newspaper, which already published on this matter in 2019, also frames this issue as an internal scandal within the Austrian intelligence and justice and migration authorities, as well as a national security issue, regarding possible threats to the Austrian population by people like Al-Halabi.

Further, implications that people “like Al-Halabi” pose a threat to the Austrian population or that the granting of asylum relies on secret deals, could encourage negative perspectives towards Syrians in general. However, Syrians fleeing from torture and violent oppression are equally upset about Al-Halabi’s dubious arrangements, when they have had to undergo a lengthy bureaucratic process to obtain legal residence, let alone asylum or a visa.

It is admittedly difficult for states to balance between seeking information through insider witnesses and prosecuting them for their criminal acts. However, those most responsible for crimes in Syria must be prosecuted. They cannot be granted impunity in exchange for some elusive benefits in intelligence gathering.

Conclusion

Scandals like this one, surrounding “Operation White Milk”, cause distrust among the public in a country’s own institutions and are likely to increase the tendency to criminalize all Syrian refugees. Relevant authorities should always check the value of possible information for the prosecution of international crimes as well as assess the willingness of former perpetrators to provide information and cooperation. Apparently, Khaled Al-Halabi never provided any information to the Austrian authorities to achieve justice and accountability for the victims of international crimes. Austria should therefore participate in the search for Al-Halabi and effectively cooperate with other countries and international and regional mechanisms to fight impunity for those most responsible for the atrocities committed in Syria.

[1]          According to Austrian law, such secret files have to be created in cases where there is a particular public interest in the investigation due to the extraordinary significance of the criminal act under investigation or the public standing of the alleged perpetrator. In such cases, the forwarding of information concerning the investigation procedure would create a significant threat for the persons affected by the investigations, third parties or the public peace, order, and security or would endanger the purposes of the investigation.

[2]          The post refers to a report issued by a British law firm as “UN report”, solely because it was submitted to the UNSC by France and is consequently also embedded in a UN document. The report contains a first forensic analysis of the so-called “Caesar files”. While the authors of the news blog only include a warning regarding the content of the pictures, it becomes clear that they did no proper background research on detention conditions and torture in government-run detention facilities. It rather seems as if they want to add some “extra” to their post by allegedly quoting the UN and presenting disturbing images.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected] and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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