February 7, 2023

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European Parliament reacts to lawmaker impeached by Reuters in Qatar transplant probe

©Reuters. FILE PHOTO: European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell arrives at an EU-Israel Association Council in Brussels, Belgium October 3, 2022. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Philip Blenkinsop and Charlotte Van Campenhout

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Parliament on Monday moved to remove one of its members from her role as vice-president after she and others were prosecuted over allegations that Qatar had showered them with cash and gifts to influence decision-making.

Greece on Monday froze the assets of a prime suspect in the case, Eva Kaili, one of 14 parliament vice-presidents and one of four people arrested and charged in Belgium over the weekend, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

Kaili’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Qatar has denied any wrongdoing.

Belgian prosecutors searched 19 homes and Parliament’s offices from Friday to Monday and confiscated computers, mobile phones and several hundred thousand euros from a suspect, an MEP’s home and a suitcase in a Brussels hotel room.

The four unnamed suspects are accused of “participation in a criminal organization, money laundering and corruption,” the public prosecutor said.

The scandal is particularly embarrassing for Parliament, which has seen itself as a moral compass in Brussels, issuing resolutions criticizing human rights abuses around the world and holding EU governments to account. Germany said it was endangering Europe’s credibility.

Some European diplomats told Reuters last month that pressure to maintain good relations with Qatar is mounting as the continent heads for a winter of energy shortages due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The European Parliament suspended Kaili from her duties on Saturday. On Monday, as EU lawmakers met in Strasbourg, the chamber’s president, Roberta Metsola, said she would start a process to end her role as vice-president.

The Greek socialist PASOK party excludes them from their ranks.

Belgian prosecutors said they had suspected for more than four months that a Gulf state was trying to buy influence in Brussels.

A source with knowledge of the case said the state is Qatar. A Qatari official denied allegations of possible wrongdoing over the weekend.

The European Parliament was due to vote this week on a proposal to extend visa-free travel to the EU for Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Ecuador, but it has now been put on hold.

The probe comes as World Cup host Qatar finds itself in the global spotlight amid criticism of its human rights record, including its treatment of migrant workers.

In a speech in the European Parliament on November 21, at the start of the month-long soccer tournament, Kaili slammed Qatar’s detractors and hailed the energy-rich Gulf state as a “pioneer on labor rights”.

CREDIT CARD

According to a source familiar with the case, the other defendants are Italian nationals – former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, Kaili’s partner Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant, and Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, secretary-general of a human rights group.

Another Italian, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation Luca Visentini, has been conditionally released, meaning he is still under suspicion, the source said.

There were no replies to calls and emails from Reuters to their respective offices or homes in Belgium.

Belgium also filed European arrest warrants against Panzeri’s wife and daughter in Italy, according to excerpts from Reuters.

Panzeri has been suspected of receiving payments from Qatar and Morocco to influence European Parliament staff and his wife Maria Colleoni and adult daughter Silvia are aware of the activities.

It is said that they took part in the transport of gifts and that Panzeri and his wife used a credit card belonging to a third party, whom they called “Geant” (giant). The person has not been identified.

Nicola Colli, a lawyer for the Panzeri family, said the woman and daughter are under house arrest and a court will decide next week whether to hand them over to Belgian authorities.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Moroccan government.

Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called the incident “unbelievable” at a meeting with EU counterparts in Brussels.

“This is about Europe’s credibility,” she told reporters.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the allegations as “extremely worrying” and highlighted a Commission proposal to create an independent ethics body for all EU institutions.

“It’s a question of people’s trust in our institutions,” she said.