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UK politicians lobbied by Qatargate ‘controller’ on expensive overseas trips

UK politicians lobbied by Qatargate ‘controller’ on expensive overseas trips

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LONDON — British MPs and peers were lobbied by a key group at the heart of a European Parliament corruption scandal during visits to Qatar ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

After the paid-for overseas visits, worth thousands of pounds, several of the U.K. politicians publicly praised Doha’s human rights record with speeches in the British parliament, despite concerns raised by human rights groups about the gruesome working conditions in Qatar and the deaths of thousands of south Asian migrant construction workers. 

The trips reveal a new layer to Qatar’s extensive lobbying of Western politicians in the build-up to last year’s World Cup, as well as a previously-undisclosed toehold in London for an organization now embroiled in the sprawling cash-for-influence Qatargate scandal which has gripped Brussels since December 2022.

British politicians were part of several delegations hosted by Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), now under scrutiny as one of the main actors in the Qatargate affair.

The man who led the NHRC for over a decade until 2021, Ali Bin Samikh Al Marri, is described in an arrest warrant from the Belgian criminal investigation as the “controller” of a bribery network of MEPs channeled through the alleged ringleader, former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri. 

Panzeri is currently under house arrest, having admitted “participating in corruption” as part of a police investigation into whether Qatar illegally influenced the work of the European Parliament.

‘Lighting and heating’

Two peers — Liberal Democrat Qurban Hussain and non-affiliated peer Pola Uddin — traveled to Qatar in October 2022 on a trip paid for by NHRC. 

During the visit, Hussain took part in a press conference in which he paid tribute to the Qatar government’s advances on human rights, according to photographs and a report published by NHRC.

On returning to London, Hussain noted in a House of Lords debate that foreign workers in Qatar were provided with “lighting, heating and three-times daily cooked food.” He said that “the visiting group unanimously agreed that Qatar has made huge progress in its reforms.”

He also described it as “encouraging” that Qatar had signed “a memorandum of understanding” with the EU on human rights — a reference to a secret cooperation deal revealed last month by POLITICO.

The agreement was signed in 2018 by NHRC and Panzeri, but the Parliament has since distanced itself from the document, insisting it was never an official agreement. 

Having taken part in the same trip as Hussain, Uddin made positive comments in the House of Lords about Qatar’s organization of the 2022 World Cup, highlighting “their impactful management of fans.” She made no direct mention of human rights.

Panzeri is currently under house arrest, having admitted “participating in corruption” | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Both peers declared the trips in accordance with House of Lords rules, but were not required to disclose their value. Similar visits made by MPs were valued at more than £3,000 each. 

On a separate trip in 2020 paid for by the Qatari ministry of foreign affairs, the NHRC also lobbied a group of British MPs — several of whom went on to laud Qatar’s efforts to improve conditions for workers in a parliamentary debate. 

The delegation was led by Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs and justice spokesman, and included Conservative MPs Alun Cairns, Adam Holloway and Jackie Doyle-Price, and the Labour MP Justin Madders.

Photographs of the visit show they met Al Marri, who left NHRC when he was appointed Qatar’s minister of labor in 2021.

Carmichael later told the U.K. parliament in reference to previous Qatari human rights violations: “There was never any excusing those breaches, but it is significant to note that since the sunlight was shone on them, the old line that sunlight is the best disinfectant was shown to be a pretty true one,” adding that workers’ accommodation and healthcare had “significantly improved.”

Holloway said it was “really interesting” to see how “the Qataris have cracked down on rogue employers,” while Doyle-Price said that when it comes to tackling oppression “we need to be a bit less holier than thou about it — it takes a long time to foster cultural change.”

POLITICO has also found evidence of previous visits on which British parliamentarians met the NHRC in 2017 and 2018.

All the MPs and peers named in this story were contacted for comment, though none chose to do so. There is no suggestion any of them broke U.K. parliamentary rules.

‘Urgent’ reform call

The lobbying of British lawmakers by foreign powers has been in the spotlight since a series of stories last year by POLITICO and other publications exposed the lack of regulation in this area.

The House of Commons standards committee has since proposed a ban on foreign governments running all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs), but chose not to recommend tighter restrictions on donations in the form of international hospitality. 

The European Parliament last week adopted non-binding guidelines banning MEPs from taking official trips to Qatar and Morocco while the corruption probe continues. MEPs are now urged to seek permission from the Parliament’s president before inviting diplomats from these two countries onto the premises in Brussels or Strasbourg.

Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International UK, said: “This is another example of why MPs and Lords should not be allowed to accept all-expenses-paid trips funded by foreign governments and agencies. It is far too easy for repressive states to try and court U.K. parliamentarians in order to launder their reputations.”

He added that the rules around who can pay for foreign trips “need tightening urgently.” 

Eddy Wax and Gregorio Sorgi reported from Brussels. John Johnston also contributed reporting.

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