Tuesday, September 27, 2022

German spies shunned offer to meet Wirecard fugitive Jan Marsalek in Moscow

Germany’s foreign intelligence service last year shunned an offer to meet former Wirecard executive Jan Marsalek in Moscow, fearing that the invitation to talk to the fugitive was a trap set up by Russia’s FSB spy agency, people familiar with the matter told the Financial Times.

German criminal prosecutors accuse Marsalek, Wirecard’s former second-in-command, of being a key culprit in the €3.2bn fraud that shocked the country’s political and financial establishment.

Long hailed as one of Germany’s few tech success stories, the digital payments company collapsed into insolvency in June 2020 shortly after disclosing that half of its revenue and €1.9bn in corporate cash did not exist.

The meeting of Marsalek with Germany’s BND spy agency was proposed in March 2021 by a businessman, according to people briefed on the matter. But the idea was rejected by senior BND staff in Berlin, who believed that the businessman might be an informal associate of the FSB.

Marsalek, who was a close confidant of Markus Braun, chief executive, and in charge of the fraudulent operations, absconded shortly before Munich prosecutors in June 2020 issued a warrant for his arrest. Austrian police established that Marsalek in June 2020 boarded a private jet at a small airport south of Vienna and flew to the Belarus capital Minsk, where they lost trace of the Austrian citizen.

Braun, who is in police custody in Augsburg, last month was charged with fraud, breach of trust, account rigging and market manipulation.

German prosecutors and the BND are both now certain that Marsalek, now 42, has been hiding in Moscow, according to people familiar with their thinking.

Marsalek has been a person of interest to three western intelligence agencies, which have examined his links with individuals or networks connected to Russia’s military intelligence directorate, the GRU, the FT revealed in 2020.

German criminal prosecutors, who placed him on Interpol’s most-wanted list, in 2020 filed an application for Marsalek’s extradition to Russia’s law enforcement authorities. They responded that they lacked an address for Marsalek and had no trace of him entering the country.

In March 2021, during Germany’s parliamentary inquiry into the scandal, Russia’s foreign ministry tweeted that it was “puzzled by the allegations of Wirecard chief operating officer Jan Marsalek’s close ties with Russian security services” and urged Berlin “to stop politicizing this matter”.

Around the same time, however, the BND representative at Germany’s embassy in Moscow was approached by a businessman who suggested the meeting with Marsalek, according to people briefed on the matter. While the businessman did not have a formal role with the Russian secret service, Germany’s BND saw him as an informal FSB associate, the people briefed on the matter said.

Fearing that Russia’s intelligence service might be trying to set up a trap to embarrass German intelligence staff, the meeting was shot down by senior BND officials in Berlin, according to one of the people, adding that Angela Merkel’s chancellery was then briefed about the matter. The information was not passed on to Munich criminal prosecutors, the person added.

“You have to keep in mind that this is the same secret service who poisoned [Alexei] Navalny,” another person familiar with the BND’s decision making told the FT.

This week, after German daily Bild Zeitung reported about the offer to meet Marsalek in Moscow, Munich prosecutors met BND staff in Berlin and were briefed about the issue.

The Bild report stated that the German government has known the precise whereabouts of Marsalek in Moscow. Bruno Kahl, BND boss, was vague when answering questions from MPs about Marsalek’s location during the parliamentary inquiry into Wirecard.

However, one person familiar with the matter denied that detail of the Bild report, adding that the BND only had “an assumption” about Marsalek’s precise address.

“The new revelations raise some serious questions if the parliamentary inquiry committee was led down the garden path [by the BND],” said Jens Zimmermann, an MP for the Social Democrats and former member of the inquiry committee.

The BND, Munich prosecutors and a lawyer for Marsalek declined to comment.

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