European Parliament Focuses on 2 More Lawmakers in Corruption Scandal

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European lawmakers began the process of lifting the immunity of two of their peers on Monday, paving the way for more arrests as a sprawling cash-for-influence investigation ripples through the European Union institutions.

The two were identified on Monday as Marc Tarabella, a Belgian lawmaker whose house was raided by the police last month, and Andrea Cozzolino of Italy, whose aide is one of the key suspects detained by the Belgian authorities. If their immunity is lifted, the lawmakers can be interrogated and detained by the Belgian authorities.

Last month, the Belgian police arrested four people, including one of the Parliament’s vice presidents, an aide and a former lawmaker, and charged them with forming a criminal organization, corruption and money laundering. The police reported discovering 1.5 million euros — $1.6 million — in bags and suitcases at the residences of the accused and elsewhere.

The raids came after a yearlong investigation with the help of foreign secret services, and the Belgian authorities say they have uncovered efforts by Qatar and Morocco to influence parliamentary decisions with bribes. Qatar and Morocco have denied the accusations.

The assembly is the least prominent of the three main E.U. institutions, but it is the only one that is directly elected. The scandal, which has shaken the staid world of E.U. politics, threatens to undo the Parliament’s recent efforts to become more meaningful to ordinary Europeans, and more influential in the complex E.U. power structure.

“The events of last months have led to a need to rebuild trust of the European citizens that we represent,” Roberta Metsola, the president of the Parliament, told lawmakers at a session on Monday.

Four of the suspects charged to date are being held in pretrial detention in Brussels.

They have been identified as Eva Kaili, who was one of the Parliament’s 14 vice presidents until the case broke; Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former member of Parliament and the head of a human rights charity; Francesco Giorgi, Ms. Kaili’s partner and a parliamentary aide; and Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, a prominent international criminal-justice activist. Ms. Kaili and Mr. Figa-Talamanca have declared their innocence through their lawyers; the others have not commented.

Two more people, Ms. Panzeri’s wife and daughter, have been arrested in Italy and are awaiting extradition to Belgium. They, too, have denied any wrongdoing.

Mr. Tarabella’s lawyer also denied the accusations against him. Mr. Tarabella stepped down last week from the Parliament’s delegation to Qatar and other Arab countries.

“From the beginning,” said the lawyer, Maxim Toller, “Marc Tarabella has been willing to help justice if it can be useful to the investigators. He is therefore totally in favor of this waiver of immunity.”

Mr. Cozzolino, who is Mr. Giorgi’s boss, did not respond to a request for a comment.

The Parliament conducts most of its business in its offices in the Belgian capital, Brussels, where the police are investigating the corruption case. But Monday’s announcement took place at the seat of Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

As lawmakers gathered there for this year’s first parliamentary session on Monday evening, the anxiety over what might come next was palpable.

In the long hallways of the sleek glass headquarters, everyone — journalists, lawmakers, and aides — was talking only about the scandal, or Qatargate, as it has inevitably come to be known in E.U. circles.

The request to waive the immunity of the two lawmakers will be examined by a committee, which can question them. Final approval will be put to a vote by all 705 lawmakers, planned for Feb. 13.

Ms. Kaili’s immunity was lost automatically on Dec. 9 because the police claimed to have caught her “red-handed” when they found a bag of 150,000 euros in cash at the apartment she shares with Mr. Giorgi. Hundreds of thousands of euros were also discovered in a bag with her father at a Brussels hotel room, they say.

The case is going to take at least two years to get to trial, Belgian legal experts said, and it is unlikely that the defendants are going to remain in custody. Vanessa Franssen, a criminal law professor at the University of Liège, said she expected the judge to release the suspects with an electronic tag in the next three to six months. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison.

Despite the intense public scrutiny on the case, fundamental questions remain unanswered, most critically: What exactly were the foreign powers supposedly striving to achieve through the alleged bribes?

The scandal erupted as Qatar was hosting the men’s soccer World Cup, a crowning achievement intended to buff its international profile following criticism over its treatment of migrant workers and sexual minorities. The European Parliament has very little role in E.U. foreign policy, but its resolutions on human rights, if rarely binding, still matter for countries’ reputations.

Over the past six weeks, the institution has been struggling to contain the fallout from the scandal.

Ms. Kaili was removed as vice president and suspended by her political group. Lawmakers ceased work on all Qatar-related files, including new law that would allow Qataris visa-free travel to the bloc. Parliamentary delegations and committees dealing with human rights and the Gulf region have been reshuffled.

Last week, Ms. Metsola presented a detailed plan aimed at increasing transparency and making it harder to corrupt lawmakers.

“We need to acknowledge that citizens rightly demand accountability and integrity,” she said Monday. “This is the beginning, not the end.”

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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