Brussels Court Orders 3 Linked to Qatar Bribery Case to Stay in Prison

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BRUSSELS — A court in Belgium ruled on Wednesday that two suspects in a case linking current and former European lawmakers to alleged bribery by Qatar should remain in prison until trial and that a third should wear an electronic monitor, as the snowballing scandal continued to rock European Union institutions.

Four people, including Eva Kaili, a former vice president of the European Parliament who is from Greece, were charged last week with corruption, money laundering and participation in suspected bribes from Qatar, in what may be the biggest scandal in the history of the Parliament.

A court hearing for Ms. Kaili was postponed until Dec. 22, the office of the Belgian federal prosecutor said on Wednesday, so she remains imprisoned outside Brussels. Parliamentary lawmakers also stripped Ms. Kaili of her title as vice president during a plenary session in France.

Court documents seen by The New York Times identified the other suspects as Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former member of Parliament; Francesco Giorgi, Ms. Kaili’s partner and an assistant to a current European lawmaker; and Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, secretary general of a Brussels-based charity. Mr. Panzeri and Mr. Giorgi were ordered to remain detained until trial, and Mr. Figa-Talamanca was ordered to be placed under electronic monitoring.

Two others were arrested in Italy in connection with the case, the Belgian prosecutor’s office said.

Belgian officials said they suspected a Gulf country of trying “to influence the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament.”

The Belgian intelligence services have been working for more than a year with similar services in other countries to “map suspected bribery” of European lawmakers, the justice ministry told The Times.

“We’ve been too naïve about this for far too long,” the ministry said. “Look at what Russia and other foreign authorities have done in the past in terms of clandestine operations in our country. We are now arming ourselves better against this phenomenon.”

Officials in Qatar have denied any wrongdoing.

The case has sent shock waves across Brussels, the headquarters of E.U. institutions and NATO. For the past five days, a constant flow of revelations about the discovery of suitcases full of euros, police raids and arrests in hotel rooms has kept the Belgian capital riveted.

Since Friday, the Belgian authorities have raided the homes and offices of parliamentary staff members, sealing some of them. By Wednesday, the police said that they had seized more than 1.5 million euros in cash (about $1.6 million) in suitcases, boxes and paper shopping bags, as well as computers and cellphones.

Asked about the cash found in the Brussels apartment shared by Ms. Kaili and Mr. Giorgi, as well as more than half a million euros found in her father’s hotel room in Brussels, Ms. Kaili’s lawyer, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, invoked attorney-client privilege and said, “She simply had no knowledge of the cash.”

As the Belgian police were sealing more offices in the European Parliament building in Brussels on Tuesday, lawmakers were holding a multiday plenary session in the French city of Strasbourg. By Wednesday, they had suspended a planned vote on visa liberalization for Qataris, and were drafting a special resolution condemning the alleged corruption and calling for an inquiry.

The European Parliament has the least powers out of the bloc’s institutions but is its only elected body. Its 705 members have almost no say in carrying out the bloc’s foreign policy, but they have often been the strongest voices criticizing countries over their human rights violations.

The scandal shed light on the European Union’s policy on Qatar and put both the European Parliament and the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, in an awkward position. Gas imports from Qatar are an important part of the bloc’s plan to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels. The Commission, which has been on a frenzied search for alternative energy sources, has repeatedly expressed positive views about Qatar and its progress on labor reforms.

The decision by the court in Brussels on Wednesday came days before the World Cup finals in Qatar, and threatened to shift global attention away from what was to be the Gulf state’s crowning achievement after a decade-long effort to host the tournament.

FIFA granted the World Cup to Qatar despite criticism by human rights advocates that the tiny, oil-rich country has abused migrant workers and criminalized homosexuality. The World Cup has raised its international profile and drawn millions of soccer fans to its newly built stadiums.

Ms. Kaili has been a staunch advocate of Qatar, and visited the country in November, ahead of the World Cup. At a parliamentary debate last month on human rights in Qatar, she spoke of “a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world.”

Describing Europe’s approach to Qatar, she said that “some” were calling to discriminate against the country. “They bully them, and they accuse everyone that talks to them or engages of corruption,” she said.

But Mr. Dimitrakopoulos, told The Times that his client was innocent. “She did Qatar no favors at all, because all her positions were, in fact, in line with E.U. policy on Qatar,” he said.

Pierre Monville, a lawyer for Mr. Giorgi, said that he was not going to challenge his client’s detention. Representatives of Mr. Panzeri and Mr. Figa-Talamanca did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The defendants would have 24 hours to appeal the court’s decision, and an appeal would have to be organized within 15 days. They face up to 15 years in prison if convicted, Belgian legal experts said.

Sarah Hurtes and Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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