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Italy and Belgium’s red-tape row snarls Qatargate

Italy and Belgium’s red-tape row snarls Qatargate

by host

MILAN — It’s been four months, and the authorities still haven’t gotten to them.

Italian and Belgian officials are locked in a protracted standoff over how — and where — to investigate two key suspects in the widening corruption probe infiltrating the European Parliament.

In one case, Milan judges have been waiting months for more documents to arrive from Belgium before deciding whether to hand over Monica Bellini, an accountant suspected of helping Pier Antonio Panzeri — a former EU lawmaker — launder Qatari bribes to current Parliament members.

In another, judges in Naples have now punted twice on whether to transfer to Belgium Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino, an alleged member of the Brussels bribery ring, with the defendant’s lawyers arguing the arrest warrant is riddled with ambiguities and that Belgium’s prison system is inhumane.

Further complicating the matter: Italian investigators are also circling Bellini. But they have thus far stuck to investigating less-central figures around her, with an Italian official following the proceedings saying prosecutors are wary of stepping on the Belgian probe.

Italian lawyers are pointing their fingers at the Belgians. Vinicio Nardo, who chairs the professional body representing Milan lawyers, described the Belgian-written warrants as “vague,” claiming it is “difficult to understand the crimes which have allegedly been committed.” The Belgian prosecutor, meanwhile, has remained mum, declining multiple requests for comment. 

The simmering tensions came to a head this month, as judges in both Milan and Naples — each for the second time — postponed rulings on Belgium’s extradition requests as they awaited more documents.

While the disagreements may be legalistic, or even nationalistic, the end result is concrete: Roughly four months after the first arrests in the so-called Qatargate scandal, two central figures have still not been fully interrogated in either Belgium or Italy — an omission that could delay or damage attempts to get to the bottom of whether foreign countries illegally paid EU lawmakers to operate on their behalf.

“Usually when an arrest warrant is issued it means that there is an urgency to interrogate the suspect — but, apparently, not in this case,” said Franca De Candia, one of Bellini’s lawyers.

The Italian job

In the ghostly Milan suburb of Opera, elderly couples walk their dogs and chat in bars. It was here, Belgian authorities say, that Monica Bellini co-founded a consulting firm used to “give the money flow [coming from Qatar] a legal appearance.”

It was also here that Bellini was under house arrest until February, when she was released. She faces charges including money laundering and corruption, but her lawyers claim she has done nothing wrong.

In Milan, dozens of people say they don’t know Bellini, or only recognize her name from the recent headlines | Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

Around town, dozens of people say they don’t know Bellini, or only recognize her name from the recent headlines. No one responded to the buzzer at her apartment, a stone’s throw away from the local branch of the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL), the trade union Panzeri served for many years.

While the Italians and Belgians squabble over Bellini’s extradition, local authorities have refrained from launching their own probe. Their reasoning is simple: Within the EU, people can’t be prosecuted in two countries for the same crime.

“Another trial for the same charges [in Italy] would be impossible,” said Raffaele Bifulco, a professor of constitutional law at LUISS university in Rome who argued against Cozzolino’s extradition in a report for the judges. “I can understand why Milan judges are prioritizing their Belgian counterparts. The principle of mutual recognition means that the Italians need to trust the Belgians and vice versa.”

Instead, Italian investigators have only launched a formal probe into those around Bellini, including two other co-owners of her consulting firm, Equality Consultancy.

The tactic is essentially a workaround, said the Italian official familiar with the investigation, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case. The probe gives officials a formal cover to gather evidence without running the risk of interfering with the Belgian efforts.

Yet the Belgian efforts are also stalled, as Italian judges have now twice postponed Bellini’s extradition hearings, most recently on March 9. Their explanation, according to Bellini’s lawyer De Candia, is that Belgium hasn’t sent enough evidence.

“They still haven’t told us why they want to extradite my client,” De Candia told POLITICO earlier this month. De Candia also accused the Belgian authorities of essentially wanting to imprison Bellini until she confesses. 

The result is that Bellini is locked in limbo — and authorities don’t have a complete sense of what she may know. Her next extradition hearing is scheduled for May 9, the day the EU celebrates “Europe Day” — an accidentally ironic touch given the cross-border wrangling.

Lost in translation 

A similar situation is unfolding in Naples, where Cozzolino, the Italian MEP, is languishing as the Italian and Belgian authorities dance around each other. 

Cozzolino is one of several current EU lawmakers accused of taking bribes from Panzeri’s cash-for-influence network. But unlike other MEPs arrested as part of the Qatargate probe, Cozzolino has not yet faced a full interrogation.

His extradition hearing has been delayed twice — most recently on March 14 — as Cozzolino’s lawyers argue that Belgium’s evidence is inadequate and its prison conditions are abhorrent. Judges have set the next hearing for April 11. He faces charges including corruption and money laundering in Belgium, but his lawyers have proclaimed his innocence.

Unlike other MEPs arrested as part of the Qatargate probe, Cozzolino has not yet faced a full interrogation | Jan Van de Vel/European Union

“They have sent the legal documents in French, and we had to wait for an official translation — that’s why it’s taking so long,” said Bifulco, the professor advising on Cozzolino’s defense. Even in Italian, he added, the evidence does not answer the questions raised by the Italian judges.

Cozzolino’s team has also leaned on their client’s health, arguing he’s not fit to be moving around or locked up for extended periods — especially in Belgian jails.

“Given Cozzolino’s frail health conditions, does the judge really think that he will abscond? Is there really a strong case for restrictive measures?” Bifulco asked.

Belgian prisoners’ dilemma

It’s unusual to turn down a European arrest warrant like this, said Frank Verbruggen, a University of Leuven professor specializing in European criminal law.

But, he stressed, there is a caveat: “There can be a ground for refusal or delay” if, say, documents are missing or there are concerns about prison conditions — two issues the Italian defense lawyers have eagerly tapped. 

“There have been cases where, for instance, the Netherlands has delayed the surrender of suspects to Belgium because Belgian prisons are not in the best conditions,” Verbruggen said.

Several lawyers in Italy familiar with the cases also wondered why the suspects can’t be interrogated in Italy, questioning why Belgium was insisting on interrogating them locally.

Others hinted at more nefarious motivations. Nardo, head of the Milan lawyers’ association, cautioned that “weaponizing a criminal trial for other ends” and “imposing a degrading prison treatment amount to a violation of human rights” — and potential grounds to reject a European arrest warrant. 

Not everyone involved in the cases in Italy agrees with the querulous response. 

Italian judges should have greenlit at least Bellini’s extradition request long ago, argued a second Italian official with knowledge of the proceedings. The official made the case that Belgium has owned the Qatargate probe from the start and said there are no legal grounds to block the arrest warrant.

Another Italian official involved in the proceedings downplayed speculation of a clash between Italy and Belgium, arguing that the long wait is ultimately linked to procedural issues such as the missing translation of legal documents. 

The judges in each case have declined to publicly address the issue. 

Explanations aside, the fact remains that the delays mean investigators will remain partially stalled in their probe for weeks to come.

“I don’t see an end to this standoff,” said the second Italian official, noting there was no formal deadline to approve or deny an extradition request. “All I see is an endless back and forth between Milan and Brussels.”

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