4 charged with corruption in bribery inquiry linked to Qatar
By Matina Stevis-Gridneff
The office of the Belgian federal prosecutor announced on Sunday that it had charged four people with corruption and other crimes as part of a major investigation into suspected bribes from Qatar to current and former officials and lawmakers in the European Parliament.
The prosecutor did not identify any of those charged and named only “a gulf state” when the charges were announced in this case. But a Belgian official directly involved in the case said the country allegedly involved was Qatar. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the news media.
The prosecutor said that of six people taken in for questioning on Friday, two had been released without being charged. Belgian authorities raided 16 homes on Friday and searched a residence on Saturday. They confiscated a bag with 600,000 euros ($632,000) in cash, as well as computers, phones and other evidence, the prosecutor said.
“It is suspected that third parties in political and/or strategic positions within the European Parliament were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence Parliament’s decisions,” the Belgian prosecutor’s office said Sunday in a statement.
The Belgian official and European Parliament officials said that of the six people taken in on Friday, one was Eva Kaili, a high-profile European lawmaker from Greece and one of the Parliament’s vice presidents.
Others included Kaili’s life partner, Francesco Giorgi, who works as an aide to a European lawmaker; Luca Visentini, the recently elected chief of the International Trade Union Confederation, the global workers’ union; Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former member of the European Parliament; and Kaili’s father, Alexandros. The identity of the sixth person was not known.
The investigation comes as Qatar is hosting the men’s soccer World Cup amid heightened scrutiny.
The scandal is likely to embarrass the Qatari government, which has faced criticism over the exploitation of migrant workers who helped build the tournament’s infrastructure. In addition, the authoritarian country’s criminalization of homosexuality has become a flash point between some Western teams and fans and FIFA, the governing body for global soccer. And corruption was also already a focus.
“The state of Qatar categorically rejects any attempts to associate it with accusations of misconduct,” the Embassy of Qatar to the European Union said in a statement Sunday. “Any association with the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed.”
The Belgian prosecutor on Sunday said that the charges against the four people arrested were corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal organization.
Belgian newspaper Les Echo first reported Sunday that one of the four was Kaili. Le Soir reported that Kaili’s father and Visentini were the two people released Sunday. The New York Times was not able to confirm this information independently.
On Saturday evening police searched the home of another member of the European Parliament, Belgium’s Marc Tarabella, in the presence of the body’s president, Roberta Metsola, in line with immunity rules protecting its sitting members, the prosecutor and Metsola’s office said.
No one was detained during the Saturday evening search, the prosecutor said.
Metsola has asked Kaili to step down as vice president. She was expelled from her party, Greece’s center-left Pasok, on Saturday and suspended from her European Parliament group, the Socialists & Democrats.
Parliament has agreed to pause any votes or talks relating to Qatar, such as visa rules for Qataris in the European Union.
Panzeri, the former member of Parliament also detained, was once a member of the Socialists & Democrats group. The office at his nongovernmental organization, Fight Impunity, did not respond to a request for comment.
The International Trade Union Confederation, where Visentini was chief, declined to comment on the case.
Co-workers of Giorgi at the European Parliament as well as his boss there, Andrea Cozzolino of Italy, did not respond to an email requesting comment.
A spokesperson for the Belgian federal prosecutor did not have the names of any lawyers for those being questioned. The New York Times called and messaged Kaili’s number several times, but it had been switched off. In a Facebook message to the Times about the inquiry, Kaili’s sister Mantalena Kaili said there was “no news yet from our side.”
The European Parliament is one of the three key institutions of the European Union. While it is widely considered the least powerful, lawmakers are often approached by lobbyists from nations, industries and interest groups seeking to influence public opinion on their causes, and to gain allies in the room where important policies are debated.
Eva Kaili was a vocal supporter of Qatar in the months before the World Cup and recently visited on an official trip.
“Today, the World Cup in Qatar is proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world,” Kaili said last month in a speech before the European Parliament. “I alone said that Qatar is a front-runner in labor rights.”
“Still, some here are calling to discriminate them,” Kaili said of Europe’s approach to Qatar. “They bully them, and they accuse everyone that talks to them or engages of corruption.”