Home Society #BelgianGate: Investigation at risk as Qatargate suspects turn the tables on prosecution
#BelgianGate: Investigation at risk as Qatargate suspects turn the tables on prosecution

#BelgianGate: Investigation at risk as Qatargate suspects turn the tables on prosecution

by host

BRUSSELS — A year into the biggest scandal ever to hit the European Parliament, two of the highest-profile suspects in the corruption probe have launched an all-out assault to bring down the investigation.

They may very well succeed.

In media interviews and court filings, Eva Kaili, a Greek lawmaker, and Francesco Giorgi, her partner and a former parliamentary assistant, have accused prosecutors of mishandling the investigation into allegations that lawmakers and their accomplices accepted money from Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for influencing decisions in the European Parliament.

Kaili, who denies any wrongdoing, maintains her advocacy for Qatar was part of her job as a representative of the European Union and that the investigation into her actions breached the parliamentary immunity enjoyed by sitting MEPs. 

Her lawyers have argued that the testimony provided by the operation’s alleged ringleader, Pier Antonio Panzeri, as part of a deal with investigators, cannot be trusted. They have described her treatment during police detention as “torture.”

Giorgi, who has provided details of the operation to police, has claimed his statements were extracted under duress. “Whatever Giorgi has declared or written during his detention was under extreme pressure and preoccupation regarding the fact that his daughter was left without her parents,” said his lawyer Pierre Monville.

The campaign even has a hashtag: #BelgianGate.

Kaili faces preliminary charges of corruption, money laundering and participating in a criminal organization after police stopped her father as he carried a suitcase full of cash from her apartment. Giorgi, who faces the same charges, initially cooperated with police, describing how he and Panzeri used money from foreign countries to influence decisions in the European Parliament.

Two other lawmakers, Marc Tarabella and Andrea Cozzolino, have also been arrested and charged. They deny involvement in the scheme.

With the investigation headed for rocky ground, lawmakers face the real prospect of heading into next year’s European Parliament election with the corruption case not just unresolved but noisily coming off the rails.

“The Qatargate scandal undermined the reputation of the European Parliament in the eyes of many EU citizens,” the EU’s Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly wrote in a recent report about the chamber’s post-Qatargate ethics reforms. 

“The Qatargate scandal undermined the reputation of the European Parliament in the eyes of many EU citizens,” the EU’s Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly wrote in a report | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

“Ahead of the European elections next year, the Parliament must now show that it is doing everything in its power to protect its integrity and credibility,” she added.

Burnout

The Qatargate investigation kicked off with the backing of the Belgian secret services. It’s now relying on a handful of police officers on the verge of burnout.

Only five police officers are working full-time on the case, according to two people familiar with the investigation. Michel Claise, the investigative judge who pioneered the case, stepped down last summer over conflict of interest concerns, even though he denies any wrongdoing. 

On the other side of the confrontation, Kaili has deployed some of Belgium’s heaviest legal hitters, including Christophe Marchand, who has represented the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and Sven Mary, a lawyer who has defended clients like Salah Abdeslam, one of the terrorists who carried out the 2015 Paris attacks. She has also hired a communication consultant.

Kaili’s lawyers argue she was mistreated during her detention. She was imprisoned “in the cold and was refused a second blanket,” one of her Greece-based attorneys, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, said. He added that the light in her cell was constantly on, preventing her from sleeping and that she wasn’t allowed to bathe even though she was menstruating. She was later asked if she would submit to a polygraph test, a largely discredited form of evidence gathering, according to a summary of her statements to police seen by POLITICO.

Lawyers for suspects in the case have also pointed out that it’s highly unusual for an alleged ringleader like Panzeri to be offered a deal in order to bring charges against lower-level members of an operation, rather than the other way around.

Dimitrakopoulos has noted that Panzeri and Giorgi were held in the same cell in the days after their arrests, according to a letter to the general prosecutor and the investigative judge seen by POLITICO. This could have allowed them to coordinate their defense. 

Uncharted territory

In September, Kaili’s lawyers threw the entire investigation into doubt, after they argued that the evidence against her should be ruled inadmissible because it was gathered before the European Parliament voted to lift the immunity she enjoyed as a lawmaker. A Belgian appeals court is expected to rule on Kaili’s objections in the middle of next year, pushing any trial further into the future.

“We’re exploring uncharted legal territory here,” said a person familiar with the Belgian case, who requested anonymity because they were not allowed to speak on the record.

The maneuver gave defense attorneys access to the investigative files, providing them with ammunition with which to pummel the prosecution and information allowing them to anticipate the lines of attack.

Kaili has also petitioned the European Court of Justice to clarify rules regarding her parliamentary immunity and asked the Parliament to re-examine its treatment of her during the days before and after her arrest.

Prosecutors retort that Kaili’s immunity wasn’t violated because she was caught red-handed after dispatching her father out of her flat with a suitcase full of cash, a claim she acknowledged during her first statements to police. “Eva Kaili tried to hide and transfer funds,” the prosecutor in charge of the case said in a note to the defense lawyers seen by POLITICO.

Prosecutors say Eva Kaili’s immunity wasn’t violated because she was caught red-handed after dispatching her father out of her flat with a suitcase full of cash | Julien Warnand/EFE via EPA

Meanwhile, Belgian authorities have been unable to pursue the suspects they accuse of leading the corruption effort: Qatari Labor Minister Ali Bin Samikh Al Marri, his aide Bettahar Boudjellal and Morocco’s ambassador to Poland, Abderrahim Atmoun, all of whom are believed to have remained out of reach of the EU.

“The justice system in Belgium has not moved fast enough, it seems to me, to clear up this citation,” said Nikos Papandreou, from the Greek Socialists, in a plenary debate on Qatargate on Wednesday.

“As long as the perpetrators are not called to justice … we will not have clarity, we will not have closure,” he added.

‘Competent authorities’

The trouble in which investigators find themselves is a direct consequence of the EU institutions’ inability to police themselves, said Antoine Vauchez, a law professor at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) who has studied the EU’s response to the scandal.

With no powers of investigation, the Parliament is relying on overstretched Belgian investigators. 

“It’s as if the EU didn’t have any specific protection or tools to protect public decisions from corruption,” Vauchez said. “The idea that we need an external ethics watchdog with real investigative powers and the ability to impose sanctions, which would reflect a fairly strong response to the problem, has not yet landed.”

Asked for comment, the Parliament said it does not have the authority to look into law-breaking by its members. “Parliament cannot make an internal investigation on the possible criminal activities of MEPs or employees of Parliament,” said a spokesperson. “But it can cooperate fully and promptly with the competent authorities.”

Qatar and Morocco have denied wrongdoing in the case and did not reply to requests for comment. Kaili, Giorgi and Panzeri’s lawyers and the Belgian prosecutor’s office declined to comment.

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