The cash for the probe hits home at a meeting in Brussels days before the World Cup

Last Updated on January 18, 2023 by

Belgian police seized nearly €1.5 million in cash from homes and hotels in Brussels last month, allegedly paid by Qatar to sway decisions in the European Parliament. Now some reports have suggested what that money might have been intended to buy.

Researchers gathered at a meeting of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights on November 14, 2022, where Qatar’s labor minister, Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, defended his country’s record on workers’ rights.

The meeting took place a few days before the start of the World Cup in Qatar. Marri told MPs that the reforms “have been made in a short time, so it is natural that there are difficulties”, and criticized what he called “racism” against his country.

They were difficult people. MEPs from the left and the right lined up to criticize Qatar’s labor rights record. A football-loving MEP said he would not watch a single match, while another denounced the tournament as “the World Cup of shame”.

Behind the scenes, it seems, Pier Antonio Panzeri, the former Italian MEP who allegedly took large payments from Qatar and Morocco, was trying to pull the strings. In a significant development on Tuesday, he struck a deal with prosecutors, agreeing to provide information on who he bought and the modus operandi of the corruption ring in exchange for a lighter prison sentence.

Some confidential details of the investigation have already been reported. According to a court document cited by Belgian newspaper Le Soir, Panzeri wrote Marri’s speech for the Nov. 14 hearing, advising him on how to position himself and calling on old friends in parliament to ask questions “to bring the Qatari minister into a familiar position.” way”.

Panzeri is one of four people accused of money laundering, corruption and membership of a criminal organization.

On November 14, his former confidant and assistant Francesco Giorgi, an employee of the Italian parliament, was sitting in the 3G-3 modern wooden panel committee room in Brussels, who was also detained pending trial.

A few weeks earlier, the couple reportedly met a Qatari delegation, including Marri, at Steigenberger Wiltcher’s, a five-star luxury hotel in Brussels. CCTV from the investigation shows him taking lifts to a private meeting in suite 412 on October 9. “The aim was to prepare the minister for this hearing organized in parliament. By preparation I mean explaining the European point of view and how it should react,” Giorgi told investigators, according to testimony cited by Le Soir.

The meeting broke up after an hour and a half. CCTV showed the Italians leaving “with a thicker bag than when they arrived,” according to the investigative report cited by Le Soir.

Panzeri duly anticipated the offensive criticism of Qatar on the rights of migrant workers from several MEPs when the subcommittee met, and allegedly made plans.

According to the court document cited by Le Soir, Panzeri contacted MEPs, including Belgian Marc Tarabella and Italian Andrea Cozzolino, asking them to intervene in the debate. Both are members of the Socialists and Democrats group in the Parliament, the former political seat of Eva Kaili, the Greek MEP also accused in the case.

This week, the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsol, launched a process to lift the immunity of Tarabella and Cozzolino, following a request from Belgian investigators.

During the meeting, Cozzolino apparently went off the script by asking the Qatari minister for more clarity on wages and working conditions, but ended by asking how the European Parliament could be involved in overseeing Qatar’s labor standards. Tarabella accused her MEPs of not criticizing Russia and China during the Sochi Winter Olympics and the Beijing Summer Games. He accused critical MEPs of basing their assertions on out-of-date information, urging them to “really respect [Qatar’s] journey”.

Neither responded to the Guardian’s request for comment, but both have denied wrongdoing to the Belgian and Italian press through lawyers.

Tarabella’s lawyer, Maxim Toller, said his client had not declared a trip to Qatar in February 2020, but the MEP intended to correct this. “Mr Tarabella is very, very clear that he has never received any promises, money or the slightest gift” to help Qatar, Toller told Belgian television last weekend.

Cozzolino has also declared his “absolute innocence” through his lawyers, describing the request to waive immunity as based on “a hypothesis of the investigation”.

The authorities are said to have also looked into the role of the person who heads the subcommittee that day, the Belgian Socialist MEP Marie Arena. He left that post last week after it was discovered that he had failed to declare a visit to Doha in May 2022 paid for by the Qatari government. According to a leak from the investigative team, “Marie Arena benefits from Panzeri’s advice and influence, while the latter uses Arena’s position as chairman of the human rights subcommittee to exert her influence.”

Some people at the meeting, who declined to comment publicly, expressed concern about Arena’s approach. He reportedly took the meeting to a strict limit, cutting off some critics who were running out of time, while not imposing a limit on the Qatari minister.

Claudio Francavilla, Human Rights Watch’s chief EU lawyer, who was present at the meeting, said: “Unfortunately, Minister Marri did not have a time limit during the hearing, but Human Rights Watch’s representative Minky Worden only had five minutes to present and present. minutes to answer one. But I don’t have the elements to associate such a perhaps deferential attitude with some sort of corruption, and time is always a constraint in committee hearings.”

Left-wing Spanish MEP Miguel Urbán Crespo told the Guardian he was “not at all surprised” that investigators were looking into the November 14 meeting. He said there had been many interventions by MEPs who were “very polite” to Qatar. And he noted what he saw as an unusual representation of Qatar’s mission to the EU. “My impression is that this meeting is very significant for Qatar,” he said.

But Urbán Crespo did not criticize Arena. He said his chairing of the meeting was “normal” and allowed his critical intervention to pass.

Arena did not respond to an email and phone calls to his office went unanswered, but he has pleaded not guilty in a media release. “I declare loud and clear that I am in no way involved in this affair,” he said. He also described the November 14 hearing as “a transparent and uncomfortable exercise for the Qatari authorities” and said it was “absolutely impossible” that Panzeri would have gotten anything out of him, either as committee chair or as an MEP. In a statement to Politico, he blamed his office for not declaring his May 2022 trip to Doha.

An attorney for Panzeri did not respond to requests for comment, and Giorgi’s legal representative declined to comment. Kaili’s lawyers have denied all charges against him.

Neither Qatari officials in Brussels nor Doha’s labor ministry responded to questions about the November 14 meeting, but Qatar has previously rejected all allegations. “Any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and misinformed,” Qatar’s foreign ministry said last month.