Around 10,000 people rallied in the Austrian capital of Vienna on Saturday to protest coronavirus restrictions, calling on the government to resign, Austrian police said.
With the Alpine country currently in its third lockdown since March in a bid to bring the pandemic under control, and with non-essential shops, concert halls and theatres, sports centres and schools all closed, the protesters’ anger was directed at Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, as well as at the media.
“The numbers of deaths we’re being given, that’s rubbish. I don’t want to end up like China where you don’t have any right to do anything,” one woman who gave her first name as Gabi told AFP.
Brandishing banners proclaiming: “You’re the disease. We’re the cure” and waving Austrian flags, most of the demonstrators refused to wear masks or respect social distancing rules, including far-right politician and former deputy chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache.
A counter-demonstration organised by the far-left comprising a crowd of around 500, according to police estimates, also took place, denouncing “anti-mask lunacy”.
Austria, which has a population of 8.9 million, has reported a total 7,053 deaths from Covid-19 since the outbreak of the pandemic.
A panel of experts has recommended to Chancellor Kurz that the current restrictions should not be eased as planned on January 25, as the number of infections is showing no sign of slowing and the British variant of the virus continues to circulate.
The scientific advisers suggested making it mandatory to work from home and to extend the lockdown.
The government is scheduled to announce new measures on Sunday.
A Vienna court on Friday sentenced a flamboyant, jet-setting former Austrian finance minister to eight years in prison in the country’s biggest corruption trial since World War II.
r was found guilty of abuse of power and involvement in kickbacks totaling 9.6 million euros ($11.7 million) over the sale of state-owned apartments.
During the trial, a co-defendant — who was also best man at Grasser’s wedding — admitted passing on insider information enabling a consortium to buy 60,000 government-owned flats for 961 million euros, one million euros more than a rival bidder.
Just three years later, the consortium valued the apartments at about double the price.
Grasser, who as finance minister had decided to sell the flats and knew of the bids, and his co-defendants received kickbacks totalling 9.6 million euros.
“Only Grasser could have passed on information” to the winning consortium, judge Marion Hohenecker said.
She rejected a claim by a co-defendant that the relevant information had come from Joerg Haider, the controversial former head of the far-right Freedom Party who died in 2008 and who had himself faced multiple corruption allegations.
– ‘Very far-fetched’ –
During his time in office, Grasser, now 51, frequently graced the tabloids with his wife, the heir to the Swarovski crystal empire.
At the time the one-time Haider protege was seen as a political star with a possible future as chancellor.
Heinz Mayr, former head of the law faculty at Vienna University who has followed the trial, said the defendants’ attempts to explain the events surrounding the deal at times seemed “very far-fetched”.
“There were a lot of inconsistencies that could not be explained,” he told AFP.
One of these explanations, highlighted in the verdict, was Grasser’s claim that the 500,000 euros he had deposited in cash at Vienna’s Meinl Bank — which filed for bankruptcy this year after it was accused of laundering more than $500 million euros — had been gifted to him by his mother-in-law.
His mother-in-law denied this and prosecutors were able to prove that he had not met her in Switzerland at the time he said she handed over the cash.
The case, which has attracted major media interest in the wealthy EU country, involved 14 defendants facing an array of charges including breach of trust, bribery, taking kickbacks, falsifying evidence, money laundering and fraud.
The case also touched on alleged corrupt payments related to the renting of an office block in the city of Linz.
The verdict was based on hundreds of witness statements as well as tapped telephone calls in which one of the defendants wonders how he could reasonably explain receiving hundreds of thousands of euros to the prosecution.
Grasser, along with several defendants who were also found guilty, will appeal, his lawyer said.
A huge manhunt was underway Tuesday after gunmen opened fire at multiple locations across central Vienna, killing at least four people in what Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz described as a “repulsive terror attack”.
One of the suspected killers, identified as an Islamic State group sympathiser, was shot dead by police who said they were searching for at least one more assailant still at large.
The shooting rampage, in six locations including near a synagogue and the world-famous opera house in the heart of Vienna on Monday evening, was carried out by “several suspects armed with rifles”, police said.
Helicopters were flying overhead as police sealed off the city in the hunt for other attackers, while neighbouring countries stepped up border checks.
The shooting erupted just hours before Austria was to re-impose a coronavirus lockdown, with people out in bars and restaurants enjoying a final night out.
It follows a spate of Islamist attacks in France and triggered an outpouring of solidarity from Western leaders including US President Donald Trump.
– ‘Heavily armed’ gunman –
Two men and two women were killed in the attack, an interior ministry spokesman said, while about 15 more have been injured, seven seriously. Police also said an officer had been hurt.
The first shots were heard at around 8 pm (1900 GMT) in the city’s centrally-located first district.
“It sounded like firecrackers, then we realised it was shots,” said one witness quoted by public broadcaster ORF.
A gunman “shot wildly with an automatic weapon” before police arrived and opened fire, the witness added.
Another spoke of at least 50 shots being fired.
“All the signs make it clear it’s a radicalised person and a person who feels closely connected to IS,” Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said of the slain attacker.
Police had used explosives to blast their way into the apartment of the dead man who had been “heavily armed”, he told a press conference.
The minister had earlier said: “According to what we currently know, there is at least one attacker who is still on the run.”
It was unclear how many assailants were involved.
– ‘Never be intimidated’ –
Speaking to ORF, Kurz said the attackers “were very well equipped with automatic weapons” and had “prepared professionally”.
He also tweeted: “Our police will act decisively against the perpetrators of this repulsive terror attack.
“We will never be intimidated by terrorism and we will fight this attack with all means.”
Kurz said that while police were concentrating on the anti-terror operation, the army would take over the security of major buildings in Vienna.
Nehammer urged Vienna residents to remain in their homes and keep away from all public places or public transport. He said children would not be expected to go to school on Tuesday.
An AFP photographer said large numbers of police were guarding an area near the opera house.
The president of Vienna’s Jewish community Oskar Deutsch said shots had been fired “in the immediate vicinity” of the Stadttempel synagogue, but added that it was currently unknown whether the temple — closed at the time — had been the target.
– ‘Cowardly act’ –
At the busy bars and restaurants, people were told to remain indoors.
“At the beginning, I thought to myself that maybe we were making an American film or that they had drunk too much,” said waiter Jimmy Eroglu, 42.
But then he heard shots. “The police came in and said, ‘you all have to stay inside because there’s a probably a dead man there'”.
Robert Schneider, who lives in central Vienna, went out and found two lasers trained on his chest.
“Hands up, take off your jacket,” officers shouted at him, the 39-year-old told AFP. “We had seen nothing, heard nothing. We are in shock.”
Austria had until now been spared the sort of major attacks that have hit other European countries.
Germany stepped up checks at the Austrian border as Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “The fight against these assassins and those who instigate them is our common struggle.”
President Emmanuel Macron of France tweeted: “We French share the shock and sorrow of the Austrian people”.
On Thursday, three people were killed at a church in the French Riviera city of Nice, and a schoolteacher was beheaded by a suspected Islamist outside Paris on October 16.
Leaders of other nations also voiced support for Austria.
“These evil attacks against innocent people must stop. The US stands with Austria, France, and all of Europe in the fight against terrorists, including radical Islamic terrorists,” Trump said.
EU Council chief Charles Michel tweeted that the bloc “strongly condemns this cowardly act”.
Even in midst of a deadly pandemic, the Viennese seek to look death straight in the eye — an attitude on display at a morbidly humorous museum devoted to death and burial.
Right below the funeral parlour of the Austrian capital’s famous Central Cemetery, burial shrouds and coffins have been on display since 1967, making the Vienna Funeral Museum the first museum to trace how we mourn the dead.
It is perhaps fitting, given the local expression: “Death must be a Viennese”.
“A lot of people are probably afraid of death, but it’s inevitable -– along with taxes! –- so it’s a good idea to show that things haven’t changed that much,” says visitor Jack Curtin, a Vienna resident of American origin in his 70s.
After a day spent touring the graves of the great and the good, he has taken in the museum collection together with a friend, pronouncing it “excellent”.
In normal times tourists from as far afield as Japan and Canada would come to marvel at the re-usable coffins — introduced in the 18th century by Austrian Emperor Joseph II — as well as the futuristic-looking “cocoon” coffin.
But thanks to the blow dealt to travel by the pandemic, the Viennese will largely have the site to themselves on Halloween and All Saints Day.
– Morbid side –
Despite the pandemic, however, the museum’s new temporary exhibit commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven is drawing visitors.
Alongside insights into the life of the German composer, who was laid to rest in the Central Cemetery, the exhibition also naturally includes his death mask and objects relating to his funeral.
Fellow composer Joseph Haydn was also buried here — although his skull, stolen by medical students in 1809, was only recovered nearly 150 years later.
“Vienna is well known for its morbid side,” says visitor Julia Wuerzl, who has come for a stroll through the leaf-strewn grounds that serve as the last resting place for three million people, outnumbering the city’s living residents by more than one million.
As the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold, the museum says that it felt encouraged rather than dissuaded to keep its doors open, hoping to help locals consider death as a part of life.
“I believe that because of coronavirus, people spend more time contemplating what kind of significance death could have for their life,” as well as how they would like to be buried, says museum spokeswoman Sarah Hierhacker.
– Lego deathmatch –
Recent trends include the use of compostable urns as well as of a new area dedicated to joint burials of people and their pets that allows for “strong bonds to be safeguarded beyond death,” according to a brochure.
The one thing that’s frowned upon, however, is dodging the subject, even when it comes to children: The museum’s gift shop offers Lego sets of crematoriums, hearses, and skeletons.
“While it is certainly necessary to choose words that are suitable for them, it’s still crucial to be clear and transparent with children of all ages, because taboos create fear and a sense of being abandoned”, says psychotherapist Michaela Tomek, who specialises in treating children who have experienced trauma, such as the death of a parent.
The Gothic Lego figurines, some of which are reminiscent of the Addams Family characters, have long been among the gift shop’s best selling items, but the latest hit has been funeral service-branded face masks.
“Denying the coronavirus secures our jobs,” reads a typical piece of black humour printed on one of the masks.
“We produced 3,000, but we’ve had 7,000 orders,” says Hierhacker, looking on as a disappointed visitor leaves empty-handed.
As elsewhere, the pandemic is on everyone’s mind, leading a visitor to indulge in some gallows humour and ask if Vienna will put its once infamous “hearse tram” back into service.
At the height of the 1918-1920 Spanish flu, the tram transported thousands of bodies straight to the central cemetery.
A century later, the public transport line 71 still follows the same route, giving rise to the Viennese euphemism for death: “to take the 71”.
As the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is set to meet in Vienna on Friday, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Petroleum, and head of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, (NNPC) Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, has been named as the new conference President of the Organisation.
Dr. Kachikwu replaces Nigeria’s former Minister of Petroleum, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke who was named the first female President of OPEC in November last year.
The minister is calling for a delay in Iran’s intended oversupply of crude oil in order to control pricing that has dropped near 20 percent in 2015.
Ahead of Friday’s meeting, US crude oil price climbed 1.40 percent early today trading at 40 Dollars 23 cents per barrel, Brent was up 48 cents at 42 Dollars 97 cents per barrel.
Ahead of Fridy’s meeting analysts expect OPEC whose 12 member nations from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America pump out about one third of the world’s oil, to leave its daily oil output target at 30 million barrels.
Leaders are said to be making much progress at their talks in Vienna, on the political crisis in Syria.
The meeting, which has Iran attending for the first time, is aimed at closing the gap between the United States (US) and its allies, who support the rebels, and the key foreign allies of the Syrian government, which are Russia and Iran.
Both countries have recently stepped up their military involvement in the four year conflict in Syria, backing the Syria military forces.
But the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab Nations have long insisted that Mr. Assad cannot play a long-term role in Syria’s future.
Iran’s Foreign Minister said that other powers have realised that there was no way of reaching ‘a reasonable solution’ to the Syrian conflict, without involving Tehran.
Initial talks to resolve the Syrian crisis is set to open in Vienna. This meeting seeks to bridge the gap between the United States (US) and its allies.
Foreign powers backing rival sides in Syria’s civil war hope the meeting would also settle scores with those who support the rebels, and the key foreign allies of the Syrian government, Russia and Iran.
Iran is participating in the diplomatic talks for the first time.
United Nations (UN) Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has urged participants to show “flexibility” and “global leadership”.
The four-year-old war in Syria, which began with an uprising against Mr. Assad, has left 250,000 people dead and forced half the country’s population – or 11 million people – from their homes.
Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) has obtained permission from the Westminster Magistrate’s Court on Marylebone Road, London to temporarily seize 27,000 pounds that is about $41,000 from former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke.
An Administrative Officer at Westminster Magistrates’ Court said that the NCA had applied to the court for an order to seize various sums of money in relation to Alison-Madueke and two other women for up to six months.
No details were given on the link between the three women.
Earlier reports on Monday suggested that the former minister had appeared in court, but this turned out to be incorrect.
Mrs. Alison-Madueke also failed to appear at the Charing Cross Police Station where she was expected to report on Monday according to reports from Friday night when she was granted bail.