Cash-filled suitcases, luxury vacations and secret accounts: Qatar bribery scandal rocks Europe

A globe-trotting Italian union leader turned politician has become the kingpin 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 hide corrupt deals.

Pier Antonio Panzeri, a Socialist MEP 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 euros in cash at his Brussels residence.

A separate suitcase containing 600,000 euros in cash was found in the possession of the father of Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP also accused in the case. Kaili claims the suitcase belonged to Panzeri, according to a person familiar with her case. Several hundred thousand euros more were found in Kaili’s house. In total, according to Belgian police, almost 1.5 million euros in cash have been seized.

In Italy, prosecutors seized 17,000 euros in cash and luxury watches from Panzeri’s homes in Lombardy. An Italian judge has approved the transfer of his wife and his daughter to Belgium, where they face charges of aiding and abetting corruption.

Part of the 1.5 million euros in cash found and seized by the 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 bribery investigation has shaken the Brussels establishment to its core as it implicates lawmakers, non-governmental organizations and foreign powers, prompting some soul-searching in the European Parliament.

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

Panzeri’s contacts, which he built during his time chairing a parliamentary group in charge of relations with Morocco and other Arab nations, meant that Fight Impunity quickly became a prominent organization in a chamber where there are more than 13,000 registered lobbyists and many not registered competing. by influence

The NGO appeared to operate like a respectable human rights group, with prominent personalities on its board including former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, former French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and former European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, as well as Emma Bonino, a former Italian -notary. They have now resigned from the Fight Against Impunity board and deny any wrongdoing. There are no allegations of wrongdoing 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 Against Impunity held an event with Mogherini. In June 2022, parliament hosted a two-day conference hosted by the NGO, featuring speakers including David Miliband, a former UK foreign secretary and chairman of the International Rescue Committee, the US-based charity. Also at the conference was Luca Visentini, President of the International Trade Union Confederation. He has previously been criticized for his soft stance on worker rights in Qatar, a point he has rejected. He was arrested last Friday but released “under conditions”, according to the Belgian federal prosecutor. He has denied wrongdoing. On Thursday, he temporarily resigned from him.

In extracts from legal documents seen by the Financial Times, Fight Impunity is alleged to have bank accounts in Morocco and Qatar. Panzeri’s former parliamentary aide, Francesco Giorgi, made a confession, according to a person familiar with the case.

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

The accusations come while Qatar is in the global spotlight as host of the soccer World Cup, a tournament that has drawn unprecedented scrutiny over its treatment of migrant workers, its ban on homosexuality and its use of its wealth to strengthen their 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 “front runner for labor rights” and tried to water down criticism of the Gulf state. He also voted to grant Qataris visa-free travel to Europe and tried to persuade other members to do the same. The full parliamentary vote on this has now been suspended.

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

Fight Impunity’s address in Brussels was on the prestigious Rue Ducale, near the royal palace and the US embassy. Twelve NGOs are registered at that address, but the owner told the FT that they had leased the space to only one organisation, No Peace Without Justice. The general secretary of that NGO, Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, is among the accused. Figà-Talamanca is listed in the Belgian NGO register as administrator of five of the organisations. The 12 NGOs that occupied the ground and first floors of the Belgian terraced house moved to that address at the same time or in the months after Figà-Talamanca registered there, according to the registry.

Niccolò Figà-Talamanca is one of the accused
Niccolò Figà-Talamanca is among the accused suspects © 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 his daughter also discussed luxury holiday plans, citing a €100,000 holiday they had taken together, allegedly paid for by Qatar. They also reportedly discussed gifts from a Moroccan ambassador. The Moroccan embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

A former parliamentary aide said that after Panzeri left parliament, he was regularly seen inside the institution. The current rules state that former MEPs can keep their access card for life, but they did not have to register on its voluntary transparency register.

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

In response to the scandal, Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, pledged to harden the rules of the institution. He wants to be able to strip former MEPs of their privileges if they “use their status to lobby for something, someone or any country.”

It is part of a 10-point plan to revamp parliament’s transparency requirements, ban all unofficial “friendship groups” with third countries, strengthen their whistleblower protection systems and conduct a comprehensive review of all recent legislation. Metsola said on Thursday that she had blocked 11 accreditations issued to No Peace Without Justice, “which is allegedly related to this investigation.”

Kaili’s lawyer has said that she is innocent. Figà-Talamanca’s family issued a statement late on Friday. “We are sure that at the end of the Belgian justice investigation, in which we have full confidence, Niccolò’s position will be clarified and he will be free of any accusation.” Lawyers for Giorgi and Panzeri declined to comment. A lawyer for Panzeri’s wife and daughter said Sunday they were innocent, but did not respond to further requests for comment.

Doha earlier this week rejected any allegations of misconduct. “Any association by the Qatari government with the reported claims is unfounded and seriously misinformed,” an official said.

Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels

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