Four hit with corruption charges over EU lobbying scandal

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Four people have been charged with being part of a criminal group, money laundering and corruption in connection with an investigation into suspected influence peddling by a Persian Gulf country at the European Union’s parliament, the Belgian federal prosecutors office said Sunday.

The lobbying scandal, which allegedly involves Qatari officials, has already seen parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili relieved of her duties.

The four are among six people held for questioning after Belgian police launched raids on at least 16 premises across the capital Brussels on Friday. None were named, but at least one is a member of the European Parliament and one a former EU lawmaker. The two others were released.

“It is suspected that third parties in political and/or strategic positions within the European Parliament were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence Parliament’s decisions,” prosecutors said in a statement.

Authorities have not identified the Gulf country suspected of offering cash or gifts to officials at the parliament in exchange for political favors, but several members of the assembly and some Belgian media have linked the investigation to Qatar.

In a statement on Twitter, Qatar’s foreign ministry said that the country “rejects any attempts to associate it with accusations of misconduct. Any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed.”

Prosecutors also said that the home of a second EU lawmaker was searched on Saturday evening. The assembly’s president, Roberta Metsola, flew back to Brussels from her home in Malta to be present during the house search, her spokesman said.

Belgian law requires that the EU parliament’s president be present in the case of a search at the home of an elected member, who in most cases have a right to parliamentary immunity.

“The European Parliament and President Metsola stand firmly against corruption, are actively and fully cooperating with law enforcement and judicial authorities to assist the course of justice,” her spokesman said. He declined to provide further details.

The EU assembly begins its last plenary session of the year in Strasbourg, France, on Monday.

Metsola relieved Eva Kaili, a 44-year-old Greek former TV news anchor, of her duties late Saturday, “in the light of the ongoing judicial investigations by Belgian authorities.”

Kaili also was suspended by her party in Greece and the EU assembly’s Socialists and Democrats group on Friday after the raids, in which police also seized around 600,000 euros ($633,500) in cash, computer equipment and mobile telephones.

Kaili’s party in Greece, the Socialist Pasok-Movement for Change, publicly distanced itself from remarks she made in the EU parliament last month praising Qatar, which is currently hosting soccer’s gala event, the World Cup.

She said the World Cup is “proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world.” Kaili also repeated what she said is an International Labour Organization view that “Qatar is a frontrunner in labor rights.”

Qatar has come under heavy international pressure to introduce labor reforms in recent years as it sought to build new World Cup stadiums in record time, often using migrant workers who toiled for long hours under harsh conditions.

In Italy on Saturday, Article One, a small center-left party, suspended former EU lawmaker Pier-Antonio Panzeri following reports he was caught up in the scandal. His wife and daughter have been taken into custody on a European arrest warrant.

They spent several hours in detention before a court in Brescia ordered them transferred to house arrest pending a definitive decision on whether they will be handed over to Belgian authorities, one of their lawyers, Angelo Giovanni de Riso, said Sunday.

He identified his clients as Panzeri’s wife, Maria Dolores Colleoni, and daughter, Silvia Panzeri.

In a telephone interview, de Riso said the full documentation from Brussels hadn’t yet arrived, so he didn’t know the exact charges they faced. But he said he believed it was related to allegations of corruption and money laundering. He said they were innocent.

The International Trade Union Confederation declined to comment Friday when asked by The Associated Press about reports that its general secretary, Luca Visentini, was also caught up in the affair. A message on the organization’s website on Sunday said that “ITUC has no further comment on this issue at present, pending further information.”


Winfield reported from Rome.