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Suitcases of money, luxury vacations and secret accounts: Qatar bribery scandal rocks Europe

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A globetrotting Italian union boss turned politician has become the linchpin of a sprawling international investigation into allegations that Qatar and Morocco sought to bribe EU lawmakers to influence policy and used a network of non-governmental organizations to conceal corrupt transactions.

Pier Antonio Panzeri, a socialist member of the European Parliament between 2004 and 2019, is one of four people charged with corruption, money laundering and membership of a criminal group after police seized €600,000 in cash from his home in Brussels.

A separate suitcase containing €600,000 in cash was found in the possession of the father of Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP also charged in the case. Kaili claims the suitcase belonged to Panzeri, according to a person familiar with her case. Several hundred thousand additional euros were found at Kaili’s home. In total, according to the Belgian police, nearly 1.5 million euros in cash were seized.

In Italy, prosecutors seized €17,000 in cash and luxury watches from Panzeri’s home in Lombardy. An Italian judge has approved the transfer of his wife and daughter to Belgium, where they are accused of complicity in corruption.

Part of the 1.5 million euros in cash was found and seized by Belgian police in Brussels

Part of the 1.5 million euros in cash found and seized by Belgian police in Brussels © Belgian Federal Police/AP

The unprecedented corruption probe has shaken the Brussels establishment as it involves lawmakers, non-governmental organizations and foreign powers, provoking soul-searching in the European Parliament.

After leaving parliament in 2019, Panzeri, now 67, set up a human rights group in Brussels called Fight Impunity.

Panzeri’s contacts, which he made while chairing a parliamentary group responsible for relations with Morocco and other Arab countries, meant that Fight Impunity quickly became a leading organization in a chamber where there are has over 13,000 registered lobbyists and many competing unregistered lobbyists. to influence.

The NGO appeared to operate as a respectable human rights group, with prominent figures on its board including former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, former Prime Minister French Bernard Cazeneuve and former European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, as well as Emma Bonino, a former Italian .-Commissioner. They have now resigned from the Fight Impunity board and deny any wrongdoing. No allegations of wrongdoing have been made against them and they are not under investigation.

The NGO’s interactions with the European Parliament, organizing events and writing reports, were not out of the ordinary.

In December 2019, Fight Impunity hosted an event featuring Mogherini. In June 2022, parliament hosted a two-day conference organized by the NGO, with speakers including David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary and chairman of the International Rescue Committee, the US-based charity . Also present at the conference was Luca Visentini, head of the International Trade Union Confederation. He has previously been criticized for his lax stance on workers’ rights in Qatar, a point he has rejected. He was detained last Friday but released “under conditions”, according to the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office. He denied wrongdoing. On Thursday, he temporarily resigned from his office.

In excerpts from legal documents viewed by the Financial Times, it is alleged that Fight Impunity has bank accounts in Morocco and Qatar. Panzeri’s former parliamentary assistant, Francesco Giorgi, has made a confession, according to a person familiar with the matter.

European Vice-President Eva Kaili and her partner Francesco Giorgi
Vice-President of the European Parliament Eva Kaili and her partner Francesco Giorgi, parliamentary assistant of the Socialists of the European Parliament © Eurokinissi/AFP via Getty Images

The allegations come as Qatar is at the center of global attention as host of the FIFA World Cup, a tournament that has drawn unprecedented scrutiny for its treatment of migrant workers, prohibition of homosexuality and use of its wealth to strengthen its role in the world.

MEPs passed a softer-than-expected resolution on human rights in Qatar ahead of the tournament. Kaili, who is in a relationship with Giorgi, praised Qatar as a “pioneer of labor rights” and sought to tone down criticism of the Gulf state. She also voted in favor of granting Qataris visa-free travel to Europe and sought to persuade other members to do the same. The full parliamentary vote on this issue has now been suspended.

According to extracts from legal documents seen by the FT, bank accounts belonging to several NGOs were “used to move money around”, Giorgi said.

The Brussels address of Fight Impunity was located in the prestigious rue Ducale, near the Royal Palace and the United States Embassy. Twelve NGOs are registered at this address, but the owner told the FT they had rented the space to just one organisation, No Peace Without Justice. The secretary general of this NGO, Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, is one of the suspects charged. Figà-Talamanca is registered in the register of Belgian NGOs as administrator of five of the organisations. The 12 NGOs occupying the ground floor and first floor of the Belgian townhouse moved to this address at the same time or within months of Figà-Talamanca’s registration, according to the register.

Niccolò Figà-Talamanca is among the suspects charged
Niccolò Figà-Talamanca is among the suspects charged © Gloria Imbrogno/LiveMedia/NurPhoto/Getty Images

According to the Belgian transfer request for Panzeri’s wife and daughter seen by the FT, a wiretap recorded Panzeri and his wife talking about the need to open new bank accounts to hide money. Panzeri, his wife and daughter also discussed luxury vacation plans and spoke of a €100,000 vacation they had taken together which was allegedly paid for by Qatar. They would also have spoken of gifts from a Moroccan ambassador. The Moroccan embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

A former parliamentary assistant said that after Panzeri left parliament he was regularly seen inside the institution. Current rules say former MEPs can keep their access badge for life, but it doesn’t have to sign up for its voluntary Transparency Register.

Lobbyists register in the register to obtain a brown badge to enter parliament. He had the blue badge, so he didn’t need it,” said Michiel van Hulten, a former MEP and Brussels director of Transparency International, the campaign group.

In response to the scandal, Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, pledged to tighten the rules of the institution. She wants to be able to strip former MEPs of privileges if they “use their status to lobby for anything or anyone or any country”.

It is part of a 10-point plan to revamp parliament’s transparency requirements, ban all unofficial “friendship groups” with three countries, strengthen its whistleblower protection systems and proceed a comprehensive review of all recent legislation. Metsola said on Thursday that she had blocked 11 credentials issued for No Peace Without Justice, “that are believed to be related to this investigation.”

Kaili’s lawyer said she was innocent. The family of Figà-Talamanca published a press release on Friday evening. “We are sure that at the end of the Belgian justice investigation, in which we have every confidence, Niccolò’s position will be clarified and he will be cleared of all charges.” Lawyers for Giorgi and Panzeri declined to comment. An attorney for Panzeri’s wife and daughter said Sunday they were innocent but did not respond to further requests for comment.

Doha earlier this week dismissed any allegations of misconduct. “Any association of the Qatari government with the reported allegations is baseless and grossly misinformed,” an official said.

Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels

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