Corruption, cash and confessions: Who are the key suspects in the Qatargate scandal ?

Investigations into Qatargate – the corruption scandal currently engulfing the European Parliament – took a spectacular turn this week when one of the prime suspects said Tuesday that he would cooperate with Belgian authorities. New revelations are expected to accelerate investigations and further implicate other suspects.

When Belgian authorities carried out 20 raids on 19 properties in Brussels on December 9, 2022, former MEP for Italy Pier Antonio Panzeri was one of the first to be arrested for his role in suspected corruption within the highest seat of European democracy.

This week 67-year-old Panzeri unexpectedly said he will cooperate with Belgian police investigations and reveal what he knows about accusations that include corruption, money laundering, and organised crime among members of parliament, aides and lobbyists in the European Parliament.

Panzeri revelations will also have an undeniable impact on three other primary suspects in the case: one of the European Parliament’s vice presidents, Greek Socialist Eva Kaili; her life partner and parliamentary assistant to an Italian MEP, Francesco Giorgi; and Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, Italian secretary-general of the NGO No Peace Without Justice.

Along with Panzeri, the three have been held in custody since their arrests, accused of crimes including participation in a criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering.

At the heart of accusations are claims that the four key suspects – and a web of other players – received large amounts of cash from Qatar and Morocco in return for influencing political decisions. Both Qatar and Morocco firmly deny the allegations.

the key players under investigation in the Qatargate scandal.

Pier Antonio Panzeri

After spending 15 years as a MEP, Panzeri founded human rights NGO Fight Impunity in 2019, which – according to the Belgian investigation – allowed him to use contacts made during his time as a politician to build a profile as a lobbyist working on behalf of Qatar.

After Panzeri’s arrest on December 9, Belgian police discovered €600,000 cash stored in his Brussels home and €17,000 in his family home in Calusco d’Adda, in Lombardy.

Panzeri and his family also “owned significant assets including shared bank accounts and real estate that could not be accounted for solely by the income of a MEP who served 10 years in office”, according to Italian daily paper Corriere della Sera, on December 22.

Thought to be one of the main architects of the corruption scheme, Panzeri’s decision this week to acknowledge his guilt and cooperate with police is a major boon for the investigation. Belgian paper Le Soir, which was the first to report the Qatargate scandal, called him “a human bomb for truth and justice”.

His cooperation also comes with personal benefits including reducing his prison term to a “limited” sentence, which, his lawyer Laurent Kennes told AFP, had been negotiated to not exceed one year and to include a suspended sentence with an electronic tag.

“He wants to be open, he wants to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” his lawyer told French channel RTBF, adding that Panzeri “admitted that he had been one of the leaders of a criminal organisation… with links to Qatar and Morocco”.

In this handout file photo taken and released on March 26, 2019 by European Parliament shows Italian Pier Antonio Panzeri speaking during a plenary session in Strasbourg. © Marc Dossmann, AFP

Eva Kaili

An initial search on Kaili’s father – who has since been released – resulted in investigators catching him trying to flee holding a suitcase filled with hundreds of thousands of euros. The fact that he was caught in flagrante delicto – red handed – caused his daughter to lose the diplomatic immunity granted her as a MEP. A consequent search on her apartment in Brussels revealed bags filled with banknotes worth €150,000.

Kaili, who became Greece’s youngest ever MP at 29, has since been charged with participation in a criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering, and is still being held in police custody.

Since her arrest Kaili has consistently protested her innocence, with her lawyer, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, saying she had “no knowledge of the existence” of the bags of money found in her apartment.  Instead, she has pointed the finger at her partner Francesco Giorgi, accusing him of “betraying her trust”.

Prior to her involvement in the scandal, Kaili was elected to the European Parliament, in 2014, held her seat in the 2019 elections and became one of the organisation’s vice presidents in 2022. Since her arrest she has been stripped of her vice presidency.

Just a few days after the 2022 World Cup kicked-off at the end of November, Kaili spoke at the European Parliament in defence of Qatar, the host nation which had come under scrutiny during the tournament over human rights abuses. She said the country was a “leader in the field of labour law” and poked fun at suggestions Qatar had used corrupt methods to gain the right to host the tournament.

European Parliament vice president, Greek Socialist Eva Kaili, who is at the centre of the probe, is seen here at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on November 22, 2022. © Handout via REUTERS, European Union 2022

Francesco Giorgi 

Francesco Giorgi has been described by Belgian newspapers as a “major suspect” in the investigation, and has currently been held by police for five weeks. He is Eva Kaili’s partner and the parliamentary assistant of Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino. Prior to this he was fellow-suspect Panzeri’s assistant, with the pair founding the NGO Fight Impunity together.

Since their arrest Giorgi and Kaili’s joint bank account in Greece has come under investigation as has 7,000m2 of land that the couple bought using the account on the island of Paros.

On December 22, Reuters reported that two suspects linked to Giorgi’s case had admitted accepting bribes from Qatar in exchange for influencing European Parliament decisions concerning the Gulf state.

During investigations Giorgi has reportedly accused two MEPs with whom he has links of their own involvement in the corruption scandal: Marc Tarabella and Andrea Cozzolino.

This undated photo shows Greek European Parliament vice president Eva Kaili (R) and her partner Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant with the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats group, both involved in a corruption probe implicating World Cup hosts Qatar, walking in a northern suburb of Athens. © Eurokinissi, STR, AFP

Niccolo Figa-Talamanca

Italian national Niccolo Figa-Talamanca was also arrested on December 9 and detained for five days, before being released with an electronic tag. However, this decision has since been reversed and since December 27, Figa-Talamanca has been held on remand while awaiting trial.

Figa-Talamanca is the head of NGO No Peace Without Justice which was founded by Italian politician and former MEP Emma Bonino and focuses on human rights issues and the rule of law. The organisation is suspected of making payments to MEPs and also shares offices with Fight Impunity, the NGO founded by Panzeri and Giorgi.

Marc Tarabella

When Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella’s home was searched by police on December 10 no cash was found, but his phone and laptop were seized.

On December 13, the Belgian Socialist party suspended Tarabella’s membership during the investigation, even as he protested his innocence. “I have nothing to be ashamed of, and I will be available at the judiciary’s request,” he told the party’s oversight committee.

Less than one month later, on January 2, the European Parliament launched emergency measures to revoke Tarabella’s parliamentary immunity at the request of Belgian authorities.

According to Belgian paper L’Écho, Panzeri claims to have given Tarabella more than €120,000 in cash in multiple instalments as payment for help with issues relating to Qatar; a claim Tarabella denies. “Whether as presents or cash, Mr Tarabella received nothing,” his lawyer, Maxim Töller, told AFP on January 17.

However, the Belgian politician has admitted taking a trip paid for by Qatar in February 2020, which he failed to declare to Parliament.

“He was invited… for a conference,” Töller told Belgian channel RTL. “He will resolve any issues. There is nothing illegal about taking a trip paid for by an organisation.” His lawyer said that while in Qatar, Tarabella went to see stadiums being built and asked to meet with workers.

In November Tarabella spoke in the European Parliament about the “positive evolution” of human rights in Qatar.

Member of the European Parliament Marc Tarabella leaves the headquarters of the Socialist Party after a vigilance committee following the allegations related to the Qatar corruption case in Brussels, Belgium on December 13, 2022. © Valeria Mongelli, AFP

Andrea Cozzolino

A second Italian MEP, Andrea Cozzolino, is also thought to be involved in the scandal through his association with his parliamentary assistant Giorgi.

Since his arrest, Giorgi has names Cozzolino as a suspect and, while the MEP has not yet been charged, the European Parliament will decide in February whether his parliamentary immunity should be lifted in relation to the scandal.

The Neapolitan, who was born in 1962, has also been described by the Belgian press as being “very close” to Panzeri from whom he took over the role of president of the delegation for relations with Maghreb countries in 2019.

Cozzolino has said he would like a private hearing with the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Commission “where he will reaffirm his total innocence and respond to all questions”.

His lawyers have denied he is involved in the scandal. “The demand to the European Parliament from Belgian authorities to lift his parliamentary immunity are a hypothesis in the investigation that do not even seem to concern our client as nothing and no one directly implicates him in corruption,” his legal team said.

The European Parliament’s Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats on December 12 suspended Cozzolino from his role as coordinator and four days later Italy’s Democratic Party also suspended his membership “as a preventative measure” to protect the party image until the Qatargate investigations conclude.

Luca Visentini

Italian Luca Visentini, head of the International Trade Union Confederation, admitted on December 20 having received a cash payment of around €50,000 from Fight Impunity, the NGO led by Panzeri.

Visentini maintains that the payment was not an attempt at corruption or an attempt by Qatar to purchase influence. Instead, he says he accepted the “cash gift” because of its “non-profit nature” and the “quality of the donor”.  Visentini added: “No one asked me anything and I asked nothing in return, and no conditions were given for the donation.”

“If I have been corrupted or was a corruptor, my political outlook would have been obviously favourable to Qatar, but in previous days I had declared that reforms made in the country were totally insufficient,” he told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, after being arrested and released by police.

Visentini has since been suspended from his role at the International Trade Union Confederation and must inform the authorities if he plans to travel outside the EU.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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