BRUSSELS — Nine months in, the blockbuster cash-for-influence Qatargate legal case could be about to collapse.
Eva Kaili, the European Parliament’s former vice president who was arrested and charged with corruption in December, is now launching a daring legal challenge aimed at toppling the entire investigation, arguing the police and spy services acted illegally when they went after her. And she can already count on Andrea Cozzolino, another member of European Parliament who is charged in the case, to join in the effort.
Months of planning by Kaili’s lawyers will come to a head at 9 a.m. on Tuesday in the Palace of Justice in Brussels, where the federal prosecutor has convened a meeting to consider the legal challenge.
The first-of-its-kind gathering comes a year after Belgian authorities surreptitiously started probing whether lawmakers and officials at the European Parliament were taking bribes in exchange for political favors for Morocco and Qatar.
Two stars of the Brussels bar who are defending Kaili — Sven Mary and Christophe Marchand — allege Belgian secret service and police violated EU laws protecting their client’s parliamentary immunity and potentially those of other suspects, according to a review of documents and interviews conducted by POLITICO.
Kaili’s lawyers filed a request for a “legal check of the procedure” with the federal prosecutor’s office, which triggers an examination of those allegations by three independent judges. In the brief, Kaili seeks to compel the court to “invite all the parties to comment on this matter, to set a date for the continuation of the proceedings.” It argues that the “parliamentary immunity she enjoys has been breached and that the criminal proceedings against her should therefore be declared inadmissible.”
The surprise resignation in June of the lead investigating judge in charge of the case, Michel Claise — who faced conflict-of-interest accusations — already dealt a blow to the investigation.
As the investigation drags on, Kaili’s push adds to a growing sense that those accused — even if proven guilty — could be let off the hook.
Before the start of any legal proceedings, Kaili’s lawyers argue, Qatargate investigators should have made a formal request to the Parliament to lift her immunity — which did not take place.
Instead, her parliamentary immunity was stripped away in December when Kaili was considered to have been caught in the act of committing an offense. Belgian police raided her Brussels apartment, arrested her and seized bags containing around €150,000 in cash. Other individuals were also targeted and at least €1 million in total seized.
“If they rule that the evidence was collected illegitimately, it cannot be used in court,” said Domenico Vincenzo Ferraro, Cozzolino’s lawyer who was invited to the meeting. He said he’d been approached, along with the lawyer for the third current MEP charged in the case, Marc Tarabella, to rally behind Kaili’s defense push. Ferraro confirmed that Cozzolino would join the request.
A summons — seen by POLITICO — shows invitees include 13 current or former suspects in the so-called Qatargate scandal, ranging from MEPs to Qatari and Moroccan diplomats who were swept up in the case.
These include the alleged ringleader and former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri; and two figures suspected of corrupting those in Brussels, Qatari Labor Minister Ali Bin Samikh Al Marri and Moroccan diplomat Abderrahim Atmoun. Kaili’s partner Francesco Giorgi, a former parliamentary assistant to Panzeri, is invited as well.
Tarabella’s lawyer Maxim Töller was not immediately available for comment when contacted by POLITICO. Up until now, the Belgian prosecutor’s office has not responded to a request for comment.
Defense lawyers may make a case on the basis of the so-called “fruit of the poisonous tree.” This legal metaphor is used to describe how evidence obtained illegally lessens the chances of a fair trial.
However, a legal precedent in Belgium could complicate any effort to completely annul a criminal investigation, said Michaël Fernandez-Bertier, who is a partner at legal consulting firm Ethics and Compliance as well as being a member of the board of Transparency International Belgium, an anti-corruption NGO.
Under this law, the “evidence that was irregularly collected does not systematically lead to the annulment of the entire investigation, part of the investigation or the irregular act: it depends on the seriousness of such irregularity.”
But due to the slow-moving machinery of the Belgian legal system, it could take several months for magistrates to make up their minds about the defense lawyers’ claims.
Regardless of whether Kaili and other MEPs prevail or fail in their efforts to jettison the case against them, those accused of corrupting the politicians — diplomats — pose an even greater challenge to the prosecution.
Al Marri and Atmoun, respectively from Qatar and Morocco, have never faced Belgian law enforcement officers. Because they acted in their official function and thus enjoy full diplomatic immunity, it is highly unlikely they will ever appear in court.
But since suspects Panzeri and Giorgi have already confessed that they took part in a corruption scheme and involved several other suspects, they could not claim any breach of immunity.
Gregorio Sorgi and Camille Gijs contributed reporting.