Belgium moves closer to Qatargate victory – POLITICO
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Does tiny Belgium have what it takes to condemn the alleged perpetrators of a widespread corruption scandal engulfing the European Parliament?
This question hung over conversations in the corridors of Brussels after the so-called Qatargate allegations emerged in December. But last week, Belgian prosecutors made a major breakthrough.
Former Italian EU lawmaker Pier Antonio Panzeri, one of four suspects currently detained in the investigation, reached an agreement last Tuesday with Belgian prosecutors to exchange information with a view to a reduced sentence.
Panzeri’s agreement to cooperate with the authorities is a big boost – not only for the investigation, but also for the Belgians involved, who depend heavily on it.
Leading Belgian politicians, including Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, boasted of the independent work of their country’s judicial, police and intelligence departments, leading to the arrests. For them, this is a sign that Belgium takes its role as host country for the EU institutions very seriously.
The Qatargate scandal threatened the credibility of these institutions after prosecutors made their investigation public in early December. The Belgian federal police have raided at least 20 locations in Brussels, seizing mobile phones, computers and more than €1.5 million in cash. Four people have been arrested on preliminary charges amid allegations that the governments of Qatar and Morocco have handed out large sums of money to trick EU politicians into carrying out their bidding.
Belgian Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne told POLITICO that the Ministry of Justice is “showing its teeth” through this investigation.
“I am confident that the federal prosecutor will do everything possible to get to the bottom of this matter,” he said, adding: “It is no coincidence that the law used is the ‘pentiti’ law, because this law was a useful tool in the fight against the Italian mafia.
The minister refers to Belgium’s so-called pentiti law, which has been used in the current EU corruption case for only the second time since its creation in 2018. The first – a money laundering investigation into money laundering, corruption and match-fixing in Belgian football in 2021 – was also led by Michel Claise, the Belgian investigating judge who is now leading the Qatargate investigation.
The second time is the challenge for Claise – known in Belgium for her fight against corruption – to actually deliver Qatargate amid widespread media leaks in the investigation.
This puts even more pressure on the Belgian judiciary to provide hard evidence.
For the defendants, the widespread leaks since the arrests began bode ill — and welcome ammunition.
Maxim Töller, the lawyer of Belgian socialist MEP Marc Tarabella, strongly criticized the investigation. Tarabella’s house has been raided and Belgian investigators have asked the European Parliament to lift his immunity – although he has not yet been formally charged.
Töller told Claise “there was a huge procedural problem” due to the leaking of important documents to the media.
The Belgian judiciary believes that the leaks – including detailed overviews of the investigation, court documents and information from the intelligence services – could disrupt the case.
Van Quickenborne told POLITICO last month that repeated leaks of information are “dangerous” to justice. The federal prosecutor’s office launched a separate investigation into the leaks, but that did not stop them.
Defense lawyers for suspects could rely on these leaks to drill procedural holes in the case, or argue that the right to professional secrecy, respect for the presumption of innocence and the right of access to documents have been violated. According to the European Convention on Human Rights, every accused has the right to a “fair and public trial”.
But in practice, leaks rarely lead to the end of a case, says Raf Verstraeten, lawyer at KU Leuven.
“The leaks are unfortunate, but the idea that it would destroy the whole trial is a very, very long road. We’re definitely not there,” he said. According to Verstraeten, much more is needed before a trial is dismissed for unfairness. “It is a pity that there are leaks, but it does not immediately translate into a decision that there is no fair trial.”
No more secrets
What leaks can do is hinder cooperation with other police and justice systems – and intelligence, which is essential for Belgians. Above all, they threaten to undermine trust between the different services involved in the case.
The head of Belgium’s intelligence service, Francisca Bostyn, told Belgian media that the leaked case “puts us in trouble with our foreign colleagues. Now it seems that Belgium cannot keep secrets. Frankly, I think it’s a problem that all of our methods are made public.
Intelligence from the Belgian State Security and other secret services played a key role in launching the judicial investigation. However, using information from intelligence services in a criminal investigation is not always easy, according to two detectives who are not involved in this specific case, but who have worked with intelligence services on other files.
“Intelligence agencies often give you a lot of important information, but not all of that information is useful in court,” said one. The sources are also not always public, the researcher emphasizes. “This can make it difficult for detectives and prosecutors to build a strong case.”
In Belgium, information from intelligence services can be used as supporting evidence, but must be accompanied by other evidence.
Analysis of seized money should help prove where and by whom it was taken. Above all, it must show whether and how the money can actually be linked to influencing political decision-making in the European Parliament. If this analysis does not provide sufficient evidence, the investigation may still fail.
Panzeri’s cooperation will be essential to building this file. If the Italian shares the information he promised, it could include details about the financial arrangements, the countries involved, who benefited and who else took part. Panzeri also agreed to release the names of those he has admitted to bribing.
This means that for those who still have something to hide, now is the time to get nervous.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Nektaria Stamouli, Elena Giordano and Gregorio Sorgi contributed to the reporting.
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