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Qatargate: Suspect Interviews Leak EU Corruption Details

This was the deal former EU lawmaker Pier Antonio Panzeri made with Belgian investigators: to reveal the details of the Qatargate corruption scandal and receive a reduced sentence for his part in it.

Leaked transcripts of two interviews conducted in early February by investigators with the central figure in the scandal, seen by DW, provide a much deeper insight into how the political scam began, who was involved and how it was perpetrated.

The details outlined in this report come from the transcripts and only reflect Panzeri’s side of the story. They can be used in court, but will likely be challenged by prosecutors.

The so-called Qatargate scandal has rocked the European Parliament in Brussels since four people were arrested in Brussels on December 9, with Belgian police seizing €1.5 million ($1.6 million) in cash from private residences.

They were Greek lawmaker Eva Kaili, then one of the vice presidents of the European Parliament, her life partner Francsco Giorgi, who was also Panzeri’s professional assistant, Pazneri himself and Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, the head of a human rights NGO. It now appears that Niccolo Figa-Talamanca may have been mistakenly caught up in the investigation, having since been released “unconditionally.”

Panzeri: Corruption scandal began with Morocco

The leaked interview transcripts show that the corruption scandal started with Morocco, not Qatar.

In the interviews, Panzeri described how a relationship with Abderrahim Atmoun, who now serves as Morocco’s ambassador to Poland, began in 2012.

Panzeri said the Moroccan diplomat paid €50,000 for one of his election campaign events in Milan back in 2014, and that his “friendship with Atmoun has grown stronger over time.”

A winding set of stories in the transcripts claims Ambassador Atmoun also paid for lavish trips to Morocco for Kaili, Giorgi and two other EU lawmakers, Andrea Cozzolino and Maria Arena.

According to Panzeri, bags of hard cash only started to be paid by Morocco from 2019, when he and Giorgi agreed to take €50,000 per year in exchange for working to create a favorable impression of the North African state within EU policy-making circles in Brussels.

The former European Parliament member also claimed a similar agreement had been set up with the officials from the government of Mauritania around the same time. Panzeri said this situation only lasted throughout 2019, with both him and Giorgi receiving only two payments each of €50,000.

The government of Morocco has denied any involvement in the scandal, while Mauritania has yet to reply to a request for comment from DW.

Money from Qatar transferred through ‘Turkish businessman’

During the interviews, Panzeri claimed Qatar began trying to expand its network of influence in the EU institutions in late 2017. This is when the payments made to the EU policy makers began to rocket upwards.

Panzeri said that after meetings in early 2018 with Qatar’s labor minister, Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, the Gulf state agreed to pay him and Giorgi each €1 million per year in 2018 and 2019.

Preparations for Qatar to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup were already well underway at the time, and the country was coming under increasing scrutiny for its treatment of migrant laborers to build stadiums and infrastructure for the monthlong competition. Panzeri’s former position as a leading voice in the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights made him the perfect person to adjust the narrative in Brussels.

After leaving office in 2019, Panzeri went on to set up an unregistered NGO called Fight Impunity to continue this work.

The transcripts suggest that it was around this time that Giorgi’s partner, Eva Kaili, began to get involved. Panzeri claimed the Greek MEP received €250,000 from Qatar to finance her 2019 European Parliament reelection campaign.

While some of the details of the money transfers remain unclear, Panzeri said much of the Qatari money was funneled to them through a “Turkish businessman and his lawyer in London.”

Panzeri also claimed another Italian MEP also received cash and met with interlocutors involved in the alleged corruption ring.

In response to a DW request for comment, the state of Qatar replied with its repeated denial, saying it “categorically rejects the accusations. Any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed.”

Panzeri says he is not the ‘big boss’

At one point during the nearly six hours of interviews, Panzeri told prosecutors that he wanted to “dismantle the idea” that he is the “big boss.”

He said his assistant, Giorgi, was the “conductor” and would hand envelopes and bags of cash to those involved, including to Panzeri himself.

Panzeri did, however, outline how he personally “approached” MEP Marc Tarabella, of Belgium, with an initial €20,000 in cash, and that Tarabella received up to €140,000 over a period of time. Tarabella voted to waive his own parliamentary immunity in February, and was arrested shortly afterwards.

What remains unclear is whether the millions Giorgi and Panzeri each allegedly received from the Qataris were to be used to bribe other EU officials, or was solely for payment for their services.

Panzeri lost his seat in the 2019 European Parliament elections, and in the transcripts he claimed that his place in the alleged corruption ring was taken by his fellow Italian lawmaker, Andrea Cozzolino, who he says received at least €600,000 to lobby favorably on behalf of Qatar.

Giorgi then became Cozzolino’s assistant in the European Parliament and was on a “high salary,” according to Panzeri.

Last month, British daily newspaper The Times reported that Panzeri and Giorgi had surprisingly been held for weeks in the same cell in the Saint-Gilles Prison in Brussels, despite being charged with collusion in this corruption scandal.

Later that month, Giorgi was granted release on electronic tag, while Panzeri remains incarcerated, as do Kaili and Tarabella. Cozzolino, currently in Italy, faces a European arrest warrant.

Sources close to Panzeri have told DW that his mental and physical health are “deteriorating significantly” while he remains in prison.

Panzeri had ‘too much’ cash and ‘didn’t know what to do with it’

Among numerous accounts of cash changing hands in different parts of the world, Panzeri told investigators the story of how €15,000 was stolen from his suitcase on a train between Paris and Brussels.

He recounted how he had separated the cash into two separate wads in different places in his bag. While traveling, the cash was removed from the bag, which was left behind.

Panzeri also said that following a cash exchange with one of the many European Parliamentary assistants named in the interview, he decided to “throw the money in a trash can when [he] got home.”

By 2021, Panzeri said, he wanted to change the system, as he “already had too much [cash] and didn’t know what to do with it.”

NGO head mistakenly linked to corruption scandal?

Another of the significant revelations in the transcripts is Panzeri’s claim that the fourth person who was initially arrested and held in prison for almost two months may be innocent.

Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, the head of a well-respected, officially registered human rights NGO called No Peace Without Justice, was taken in during the initial arrests.

Panzeri’s Fight Impunity shared an office with the NGO, and in the transcripts, DW read that he approached Figa-Talamanca with offers of donations of up to €500,000, which could be considered common for human rights bodies to accept.

“Niccolo never participated in any meeting with [an interlocutor] and knew nothing about the business,” Panzeri told investigators.

A lawyer for Figa-Talamanca told DW that his client is “in no way involved in any wrongdoing.”

Another Belgian MEP, Maria Arena, whose name has been frequently linked to the corruption scandal, did travel to Qatar according to the transcripts and met with some of the people involved. But at no point did Panzeri mention that Arena took cash from anyone.

Arena has repeatedly denied any involvement in the corruption scandal.

Press leaks raise concern over legal case

Prosecutors have tried to limit the information given to the press from the outset of the scandal, meaning the hunt for details has been ferocious. But several leaks have come to light in recent weeks, including these transcripts.

Concerns are now growing about how the prosecution may mount its legal case, with so much information now in the public domain.

DW reached out to the offices of each of the people named in this report for comment, and was either told “no comment” or did not receive a reply by publication.

Source: Taiwan News