A year after a bribery scandal dubbed “Qatargate” engulfed the European Parliament, Belgium’s investigation into the alleged wrongdoing of certain lawmakers and aides still seems far from resolution.
The country’s chief federal prosecutor, Frederic Van Leeuw, insists the probe is moving ahead but has lashed out at “constant leaks” and “enormous pressure” in the case.
“Foreign judges want to get involved in the investigation. In the 10 years I’ve been a federal prosecutor I’ve never seen that,” he said.
One of the lawyers for Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP who is a key figure in the case, said: “It’s no longer Qatargate but more like ‘Belgiumgate’!”
The scandal erupted in December 2022 when Belgian police conducting raids arrested several suspects, including Kaili, and seized €1.5 million in cash.
The probe centred on allegations that Qatar and Morocco sought to buy influence in the European Parliament to push their interests, among them to try to water down EU criticism of Qatar’s record on labour rights ahead of the 2022 World Cup, and of Morocco’s human rights record.
Both Qatar and Morocco have denied any involvement in any wrongdoing in the case.
Kaili, who was stripped of her position as one of the parliament’s vice presidents but who continues to sit as an MEP following her release from detention, says she is innocent.
Two of her Belgian lawyers, Sven Mary and Christophe Marchand, have criticised the way prosecutors were pursuing the case based on wiretaps and surveillance carried out by Belgium’s intelligence services.
Prosecutors assert that Kaili’s parliamentary privilege did not apply at the time of her arrest because she was allegedly caught red-handed, due to her father being caught with a suitcase of cash.
But the lawyers argue that the secret surveillance and resulting prosecution was a “violation” of her immunity.
They have asked a Brussels appeal court to rule on the legality of the evidence-gathering against her, a procedure that other parties have piled in to. The court’s decision is not expected before mid-2024.
The end result is that there is no visibility as to a date for a future trial, even if Van Leeuw said in June that he expected the investigation to be wrapped up by the end of this year.
The 16 police raids in December 2022 saw Kaili and her Italian boyfriend Francesco Giorgi, who was a parliamentary aide, arrested as well as a former Italian MEP, Pier Antonio Panzeri, and several other suspects.
They are among seven people the prosecutor’s office says have been charged, including two other MEPs — an Italian, Andrea Cozzolino, and a Belgian, Marc Tarabella — who were also detained.
Kaili spent four months in custody, while Tarabella spent two months detained.
Panzeri cut a deal in January this year in which he confessed to being behind the bribery scheme and promised to divulge the names of all the participants in return for a reduced sentence.
He pointed the finger at Tarabella, who said he was being falsely accused by his former political “buddy” with whom he used to discuss football.
“It’s the corrupt word of a corrupt man,” said Tarabella’s lawyer, Maxim Toller. “It’s about time that light was shed on what was promised in this eyebrow-raising deal.”
Several suspects believe the deal allows several people close to Panzeri, including a Belgian MEP, Marie Arena, to be spared trial. Arena has been named in the probe but never questioned.
Faced with assertions it is playing favourites, the federal prosecutor’s office last week issued an unusual statement insisting on the “principle” of being able to mount cases as it thought best.
Regarding Arena, it said it “is not justified at this point in time” to ask for her immunity to be lifted.
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