When executives of the collapsed German technology giant Wirecard go on trial this week accused of the nation’s biggest ever fraud, one key player will be missing.
Wirecard chief operating officer Jan Marsalek vanished into thin air as Germany’s horrified leaders woke up in June 2020 to the news that nearly 2 billion euros (US$2.1 billion) was missing from the payments company then worth more than the nation’s biggest bank.
The smooth operator was several steps ahead of the law, faking an elaborate escape to China via the Philippines while in reality he was bound for Moscow via Belarus on a private jet.
Photo: AFP / P.P. Muenchen
It was a double bluff worthy of a James Bond movie, with the added twist that a former Austrian intelligence officer and a far-right politician had helped him disappear.
Germany’s most wanted man is now thought to be living under a new identity in Moscow protected by the Kremlin.
For years the handsome charmer had been living the life of an international man of mystery, hanging out with spies, porn barons, Libyan warlords, Russian mercenaries and former heads of state, according to judicial sources and a German parliamentary inquiry into the Wirecard scandal.
It was not the sort of company you would expect the No. 2 of a financial services company to keep, but then Marsalek, 42, whose “magnificently restored” villa in Munich was opposite the Russian consulate, was never one to follow the usual career paths.
Born in Vienna, he left school without any qualifications, but that did not stop him briefly setting up his own software company before rising quickly up the ranks of Wirecard after joining the start-up in 2000.
Colleagues fell under the spell of this “brilliant,” “lovable” man who “lived on planes,” but beyond his smooth exterior, Marsalek, who had eight passports, let precious little slip.
“I don’t know anything about him,” his personal assistant Sabine Heinzinger told German lawmakers, despite working for him for seven years. “He has always separated work from private life.”
He cultivated discretion, preferred to use cash and was addicted to the encrypted Telegram messenger service.
Heinzinger said her boss was careful to leave his phone outside the room when he had confidential conversations.
Tellingly, Marsalek always avoided traveling to the US, saying he feared legal proceedings without saying why.
Marsalek used the prestige of his senior position at Wirecard — once valued at more than 21 billion euros — to expand his network far beyond the finance sector.
A man of many faces, he lunched with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, helped Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who is wanted in the US on bribery and racketeering charges, and called US porn baron Hamid Akhavan, convicted of bank fraud in New York, “darling” in e-mails.
In the shadows, he liaised with spies, paying an intermediary in 2015 to obtain “secret information” on numerous people, according to an Austrian prosecutors’ warrant.
Anxious to impress potential business partners, in 2018 he showed off the formula to the Russian nerve agent Novichok which Moscow is accused of using on critics. He had obtained the classified document from an Austrian official.
Another time he bragged that he traveled with the Russian Wagner mercenary group to Palmyra days after the Syrian city was retaken from Islamic State group fighters.
He also tried to set up a deal with Wagner in Libya to stop migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
Marsalek horrified one-time associate Kilian Kleinschmidt by praising the body cameras Wagner’s soldiers wore, saying you could “see the guys shooting all the prisoners.”
Marsalek said the people who controlled the Libyan people smugglers were living in Monaco and would have to be compensated, Kleinschmidt told German lawmakers.
Marsalek said “he could establish contact” with them.
The revelations spooked the German entrepreneur, who broke off contact with Marsalek. He now fears for his life having testified against him.
“It was through the Austro-Russian Friendship Society that Mr Marsalek came into contact with the Russian intelligence services and was able to organize his escape and disappearance,” the German parliamentary inquiry concluded.
While Germany’s most wanted man was flown to Belarus on a private jet from a small airport in eastern Austria, he managed to cover his escape by getting corrupt immigration officials in the Philippines to confirm his arrival there and subsequent departure for China.
“You can be the best spy in Europe, you can be the best crook in Europe, but not both at the same time — that seems unlikely to me without state support,” a former Austrian prosecutor familiar with the case said.
“Looking back, you can almost say that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin bought him and said to him: ‘Turn this into a successful business for me and then blow it all up,’” said the former prosecutor, who requested anonymity.
A long trek across the desert of northeastern Niger brings visitors to one of the most astonishing and rewarding sights in the Sahel: fortified villages of salt and clay perched on rocks with the Saharan sands laying siege below. Generations of travelers have stood before the “ksars” of Djado, wondering at their crenelated walls, watchtowers, secretive passages and wells, all of them testifying to a skilled, but unknown hand. Who chose to build this outpost in a scorched and desolate region — and why they built it — are questions that have never been fully answered. Just as beguiling is why it
‘NATURAL CAUSES’: New evidence indicated Kathleen Folbigg’s two daughters died of myocarditis caused by genetics, while a son died of a neurogenetic disorder An Australian woman who spent 20 years in prison was pardoned and released yesterday based on new scientific evidence that her four children died by natural causes as she had insisted. The pardon was seen as the quickest way of getting Kathleen Folbigg out of prison and a final report from the second inquiry into her guilt could recommend that the state Court of Appeals quash her convictions. Folbigg, now 55, was released from a prison in Grafton, New South Wales, following an unconditional pardon by state Governor Margaret Beazley. Australian state governors are figureheads who act on instructions of governments. New South
RE-ENGAGEMENT: Both sides described the talks as ‘candid’ and ‘productive,’ with the US State Department saying that it wants to restore ‘high-level diplomacy’ Senior US and Chinese officials yesterday held “candid” talks in Beijing, days after the two countries’ defense chiefs squared off at a security forum. US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink met with Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu (馬朝旭), becoming the most senior US official to publicly travel to Beijing since an alleged Chinese spy balloon was downed in the US. Both sides described the talks as “candid” and “productive” in their readouts, with the US Department of State saying that the exchange was part of ongoing efforts to restore “high-level diplomacy.” The Chinese
OPERATION BLACKSTONE: Belgian diplomats implied that it is worth releasing Iranians detained on terrorism charges to allow for innocent people to return home Three Europeans released from detention by Iran arrived in Belgium early yesterday, the latest in a series of prisoner swaps. One Dane and two Austrian-Iranian citizens landed shortly before 2:45am at Melsbroek Air Base just outside Brussels. They had flown from Muscat, the capital of Oman, which helped broker their release. Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hadja Lahbib welcomed them at the airport, along with Danish and Austrian diplomats. The trio’s release, as well as that of a Belgian aid worker a week earlier, were part of a prisoner swap in which Tehran got back an Iranian diplomat convicted and incarcerated in Belgium