MEP Marc Tarabella’s defense team has requested that the lead investigative judge in the so-called Qatargate investigation, Michel Claise, recuse himself from the case over potential bias, according to a document from his lawyer seen by POLITICO.
“The judge clearly seems to take the contested facts for granted, ” said Tarabella’s lawyer Maxim Töller. “It’s a problem.”
Belgian law enforcement last Friday arrested Tarabella, a Belgian member of the European Parliament, charging him with corruption, money laundering and participating in a criminal organization, in the latest development of the ongoing corruption probe that has been rocking the European Union since last December.
Two other MEPs, Italian Andrea Cozzolino and Greek former vice president of the European Parliament Eva Kaili, have also been arrested. Former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who recently agreed to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a more lenient punishment, and Francesco Giorgi, who is a former assistant of both Panzeri and Cozzolino, and Kaili’s partner, are both behind bars too. Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, an NGO boss, was recently released from jail but remains charged, according to a family member.
The saga has shone a spotlight on the inner workings of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) — the group to which all three current European lawmakers belonged, and were later excluded.
Tarabella, currently detained at the St. Gilles prison in Brussels, is facing a pretrial hearing on Thursday, as is Kaili.
Töller argues that Claise’s arrest warrant against Tarabella violates his client’s presumption of innocence. In the warrant, Claise says Tarabella’s public positions “were initially not in favor of Qatar, and these positions were then reversed when suspicious transfers of funds were detected.”
“With this categorical claim, the opinion of the judge on M. Tarabella’s guilt is clearly implied,” Töller said in the request.
The Belgian prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Because a recusal request has been filed, Claise can no longer be involved in the case for now,” Eva Kaili’s new lawyer, Sven Mary, said Thursday. Claise “will have to decide for himself if he remains [the] judge in this case,” Mary told reporters, adding he had no information as to whether the request had valid grounds.
“If he decides to stay on, the [Brussels] Court of Appeal will have to decide within eight days if he may remain part of this investigation,” Mary added.
The recusal request does not affect another hearing to confirm Kaili’s detention, also taking place Thursday. If the court decides not to release Kaili, she would remain in detention for at least another two months.
Kaili’s lawyers are asking for a conditional release of their client, for example with electronic monitoring. Being in the jail of Haren is “a difficult condition for a mother of a child of 24 months, who is being raised by the grandfather,” Mary said. “I think her place is at home with the child.”
In a letter sent to European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, seen by POLITICO, 10 Italian MEPs from the S&D group raised concerns about the treatment of Eva Kaili, who was only allowed to see her toddler twice since being put in detention more than two months ago.
Kaili’s lawyers in the past had protested her treatment while in detention.
The recusal request is the latest attempt from the defendants involved in the Qatargate probe to fight back against the Belgian investigators’ assertive tactics.