Suitcases full of cash, luxury vacations and secret accounts: the bribery scandal in Qatar has shaken Europe

A traveling Italian trade union leader-turned-politician has emerged as the main actor in a wide-ranging international probe into allegations that Qatar and Morocco were trying to bribe EU lawmakers to influence policy and a network of NGOs used to hide the corrupt deals.

Pier Antonio Panzeri, Socialist MEP from 2004 to 2019, is one of four people charged with corruption, money laundering and membership of a criminal organization after police seized €600,000 in cash at his Brussels home.

A separate suitcase containing €600,000 in cash was found in the possession of Eva Kaili’s father, a Greek MEP also accused in the case. According to a person familiar with her case, Kaili claims the suitcase belonged to Panzeri. Another hundred thousand euros were found near Kaili. According to the Belgian police, almost 1.5 million euros in cash were confiscated.

In Italy, prosecutors seized 17,000 euros in cash and luxury watches from Panzeri in Lombardy. An Italian judge has authorized the transfer of his wife and daughter to Belgium, where they are accused of aiding and abetting corruption.

Part of the €1.5 million cash found and confiscated by Belgian police in Brussels

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

The unprecedented bribery probe has shaken the Brussels establishment to the core as it has implicated lawmakers, NGOs and foreign powers and sparked a soul-searching in the European Parliament.

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

Panzeri’s contacts, made during his time as leader of a parliamentary group responsible for relations with Morocco and other Arab states, meant that Fight Impunity quickly became a prominent organization in a chamber where more than 13,000 registered and many did not registered lobbyists compete for influence.

The NGO appeared to be operating as a respectable human rights group, with prominent figures on its board including former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, France’s former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve and former EU commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, and Emma Bonino, an Italian ex-commissioner. They have now resigned from the Fight Impunity board and deny any wrongdoing. They have not been charged with any wrongdoing and are not under investigation.

The NGO’s interactions with the European Parliament, organizing events and drafting reports were not exceptional.

In December 2019, Fight Impunity held an event with Mogherini. In June 2022, Parliament hosted a two-day conference organized by the NGO with speakers including David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary and President 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 workers’ rights in Qatar, a point he dismissed. He was arrested last Friday but released “subject to conditions”, according to the Belgian public prosecutor’s office. He has denied wrongdoing. He temporarily resigned from his position on Thursday.

Excerpts from legal documents obtained by the Financial Times allege that Fight Impunity has bank accounts in Morocco and Qatar. Panzeri’s former parliamentary aide Francesco Giorgi has confessed, according to a person familiar with the case.

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

The allegations come amid global attention as Qatar hosts the World Cup, a tournament that has brought an unprecedented scrutiny of the treatment of migrant workers, the ban on homosexuality and the use of its wealth to bolster its role in the world.

MPs passed a softer-than-expected resolution on human rights in Qatar ahead of the tournament. Kaili, who is married to Giorgi, hailed Qatar as a “pioneer on labor rights” and sought to water down criticism of the Gulf state. She also voted to grant Qataris visa-free travel to Europe and tried to persuade other members to follow her example. The full parliamentary vote on this has now been suspended.

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

Fight Impunity’s Brussels address was on the prestigious Rue Ducale, close to the Royal Palace and the US Embassy. Twelve NGOs are registered at this address, but the landlord told the FT that they had only rented the space to one organization, No Peace Without Justice. The secretary general of this NGO, Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, is among the accused. Figà-Talamanca is listed in the register of Belgian NGOs as administrator of five of the organisations. All 12 NGOs occupying the ground and first floors of the Belgian townhouse moved to that address at the same time or in the months following the registration of Figà-Talamanca, according to the register.

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

According to the Belgian request for the extradition of Panzeri’s wife and daughter seen by the FT, Panzeri and his wife were bugged talking about the need to open new bank accounts to hide money. Panzeri, his wife and daughter also discussed luxury vacation plans, citing a €100,000 holiday together that was allegedly paid for by Qatar. They also reportedly spoke about gifts from a Moroccan ambassador. The Moroccan embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

A former parliamentary aide said after Panzeri left Parliament he was seen regularly at the institution. The current rules state that former MPs can keep their access card for life, but they do not have to register in the voluntary transparency register.

“Lobbyists join the register to earn a brown badge for entry into 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, the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, has promised to tighten the institution’s rules. She wants to be able to strip ex-MPs of their privileges if they “use their status to campaign for anything or anyone or any country”.

It is part of a 10-point plan to overhaul Parliament’s transparency requirements, ban all unofficial “friendship groups” with third countries, strengthen its whistleblower protection systems and carry out a full review of all recent legislation. Metsola said Thursday it had blocked 11 accreditations issued for No Peace Without Justice “allegedly related to this investigation.”

Kaili’s attorney said she was innocent. Figà-Talamanca’s family released a statement late Friday. “We are sure that at the end of the Belgian judiciary’s investigation, in which we have full confidence, Niccolò’s position will be clarified and he will be cleared of all charges.” 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 denied all allegations of wrongdoing earlier this week. “Any association by the government of Qatar with the reported claims is unfounded and seriously misinformed,” an official said.

Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels

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