Brussels offices of human rights organizations close amid EU corruption probe

BRUSSELS (AP) — No one answers the door or the phone at the offices of the two campaign groups linked to a corruption scandal in exchange for favors in the European Union parliament, allegedly involving Qatar. No light is visible inside.

No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), a pro-human rights and democracy organization, and Fight Impunity, which seeks to get perpetrators of human rights abuses to book, share the same address, in prime real estate in the government district of the Belgian capital.

The leaders of the two organizations are among four people charged since December 9 with corruption, participation in a criminal group and money laundering. Prosecutors suspect that some EU lawmakers and aides “were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence Parliament’s decisions”. The groups themselves do not look suspicious.

Qatar rejects claims that it is involved. The Gulf country that hosts the FIFA World Cup has gone to great lengths to improve its public image and defend itself against widespread criticism from the West over its human rights record.

The lawyer for the president of Fight Impunity, Pier Antonio Panzeri, does not speak. He declined to comment on his client’s role in a case that shook the European Parliament and halted the assembly’s work on Qatar-related issues.

NPWJ Secretary General Niccolo Figa-Talamanca has been released from prison but is required to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. On its Italian website, after his resignation, the group hailed his work, saying it hopes “the ongoing investigation will demonstrate the correctness of his actions”.

Accused with them are Eva Kaili, who was removed from her position as vice-president of the European Parliament after the charges were filed, and her partner Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant. The photos they posted on social media project the image of an attractive and ambitious Mediterranean jet-set couple.

After months of investigations, the police have so far launched more than 20 searches, mainly in Belgium but also in Italy. Hundreds of thousands of euros were found in Brussels: in an apartment and in a suitcase in a hotel not far from parliament.

Mobile phones, computer equipment and the data of 10 parliamentary assistants were seized.

Taking to Twitter, Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne described what he calls the “Qatargate” investigation as a “game changer”. It was achieved, he said, “in part through years of work by State Security,” the country’s intelligence agency.

According to this Italian newspaper The Republic and Belgian daily The evening According to transcripts of his December 10 statements to prosecutors, Giorgi allegedly confessed to handling money on behalf of an “organization” headed by Panzeri that dealt with Qatari and Moroccan officials.

“I did everything for the money, which I needed,” Giorgi told prosecutors, according to The Republic. He tried to protect his partner Kaili, a 44-year-old former Greek TV presenter with whom he has a toddler daughter, by demanding that she be released from prison. Kaili’s lawyer said she knew nothing about the money.

Giorgi arrived in Belgium in 2009. He made his career in parliament with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. He met Panzeri, at the time an EU legislator, at a conference. “I asked him to give me an internship, and he did,” Giorgi said in his statement.

Panzeri became his mentor, made him an assistant and introduced him, the Italian newspaper said. Giorgi expressed relief that the scheme was discovered. He described himself as a simple person who went over his head due to a moral obligation he felt towards Panzeri.

Until his arrest, Giorgi worked as an aide to another S&D MP, Andrea Cozzolino. Italy’s center-left Democratic Party suspended Cozzolino on Friday while the investigation continues. He temporarily withdrew from the S&D.

In Italy last weekend, Panzeri’s wife, Maria Dolores Colleoni, and daughter, Silvia Panzeri, were taken into police custody on a European arrest warrant. A court in Brescia ordered their placement under house arrest, one of their lawyers told AP.

On Friday, a Milan judicial source confirmed to the AP that 17,000 euros ($18,075) were seized during a search of Panzeri’s home, where his wife is staying, in Calusco d’Adda in the province of Bergamo in the northeast of Milan. Police also seized computers, cell phones, watches and documents.

Police separately found the key to a safe in Giorgi’s parents’ home in the Milan suburb of Abbiategrasso, which led investigators to discover 20,000 euros ($21,260) in cash.

Panzeri’s wife is expected to appear in court again on Monday, when a panel of judges decides on her extradition to Belgium. A similar hearing will be held on Tuesday for their daughter. Kaili is due to appear in court in Brussels on Thursday.

The source in Milan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment publicly, said Italian investigators were looking for other people but declined to identify them. The source said they were not EU lawmakers or people associated with campaign groups.

Many questions remain unanswered about the scandal. Which Qatari officials, if any, were involved? Why target the EU parliament? What is the width of the investigators’ net? What was the role of Panzeri, the former legislator and president of Fight Impunity?

No light shines in his office, but Panzeri’s own words on his band’s website might point the way: “Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long , but he leans toward justice. If we are to continue moving towards justice, responsibility must be our guide. »

Barry reported from Milan. Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.

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