Austrian court acquits far-right leader in corruption retrial

VIENNA (Reuters) - A Vienna court found Austria's ex-vice chancellor and former far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache not guilty on Tuesday in a retrial of a corruption case relating to party donations by the owner of a private clinic.

Strache, who resigned from government in 2019 in a separate corruption scandal, was originally handed a 15-month jail sentence in 2021 for graft, only for a higher court to order retrial because text message exchanges that suggested he was innocent had not sufficiently been taken into account.

He did not serve jail time while his appeal was pending.

At issue in the case was whether a quid pro quo was involved in two donations to the Freedom Party (FPO) of 2,000 euros ($2,140) and 10,000 euros by Walter Grubmueller, the owner of a Vienna private clinic, before the FPO entered government by forming a coalition with then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's conservatives in December 2017.

In 2018, a legislative change added the clinic to the list of facilities able to charge Austrian social security directly for some procedures, a significant extra source of income.

News agency APA quoted the judge on Tuesday as saying that the standard of proof for corruption had not been met.

"If the state accepts that party donations exist, one cannot assume that every party donation is illegal," the judge said, according to APA, which did not name her.

Strache's political career has been in tatters since footage emerged in 2019 of a video sting in which he was shown offering to fix state contracts and making allegations about corruption in Austrian politics. He quit as vice chancellor and the coalition with Kurz's conservatives collapsed soon afterwards.

He was subsequently expelled from his party and failed to get a rival party into Vienna's city council.

"I accept the not guilty verdict gratefully, with one laughing and one crying eye," Strache told reporters after the ruling at a Vienna criminal court.

Grubmueller, who was originally sentenced to a year in prison, was also pronounced not guilty.

Strache remains under investigation by anti-corruption prosecutors as part of a sprawling inquiry into issues related to the video sting.

($1 = 0.9315 euros)

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)