One of the main figures in the EU corruption scandal, Pier Antonio Panzeri, has been moved to house arrest after cooperating with officials in the ongoing investigation.
A lawyer representing an Italian MEP accused of corruption in the ongoing European Union scandal confirmed Qatar did not actively seek out connections with members of the EU.
In an interview with RTBF, lawyer Laurent Kennes said MEPs, including his client Pier-Antonio Panzeri pursued Qatar themselves to offer proposals of lobbying for the Gulf state in Europe.
The EU lawmaker, who served as an MEP until 2019, has been linked to illegal activities, which included the distribution of cash for influence to allegedly benefit Qatar and Morocco, primarily through his nongovernmental organisation, Fight Impunity.
Qatari authorities have denied all allegations in the scandal.
However, Kennes appeared to confirm the alleged links between Moroccan diplomat, Abderraman Atmoun and Panzeri, though he suggested the relationship began as a mere friendship.
“Initially, it is the story of a friendship with a Moroccan friend who is a senator. Sometimes, you conduct yourself based on your own ideas that you think are right. And then over time, you are influenced by people you meet, and to say to yourself, ‘hey, why wouldn’t I be paid to do lobbying’. And then this lobbying becomes corruption,” Kennes told the Belgian outlet.
Asked whether Qatar had taken “advantage of Morocco’s corruption networks” to get in touch with Panzeri, Kennes provided a definitive response.
“No. Qatar has not made any proposals to MEPs. They made themselves approachable but they did not make an offer,” he said.
Instead, “the proposal came from members of the European Parliament. And so, it was MEPs, including Mr. Panzeri, who pursued Qatar, not the other way around,” he added.
Earlier this year, Panzeri signed a plea deal agreeing to share “revealing” information that can help shed light on the ongoing investigation in exchange for a sentence of less than a year in prison.
Kennes previously vowed his client would lay out everything that had occurred since 2014 – “or even before then, in terms of contacts,” a promise that may raise concerns among several suspects who have not yet been charged.
Panzeri is 68 years old, and a complex corruption trial can take years to complete, so the suspect has every reason to cooperate, the lawyer added.
Panzeri spent the last five months imprisoned under the charge participation in a criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering, and will now move to house arrest with an electronic monitor pending trial.
The charges were also applied to other directors and MEPs including Giorgi and Figà-Talamanca, who are under electronic monitoring, and Eva Kaili and fellow MEP Marc Tarabella, both of whom remain behind bars.
The allegations date back to 2014, when Panzeri reportedly began receiving payments from Atmoun, who was then a Moroccan official. The payments were initially for political events and election campaigns, but over time became increasingly questionable.
Panzeri claims that he was given expensive trips to Morocco by Atmoun, which he found frustrating and so began to offer reciprocal trips to Cuba. However, Atmoun later made requests on behalf of the Moroccan government, leading to accusations of bribery and corruption.
Qatar rejects ‘harmful’ allegations
In January, Qatar’s foreign minister said Doha is “100%” sure that allegations of paying off European officials are baseless and called on Europe to avoid dragging Qatar’s name into the ongoing corruption scandal.
The top official, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, told CNBC that the ongoing investigation must be respected before such claims are made.
“As a State of Qatar, we are 100% sure that this premise has no basis. We didn’t see anything. There’s an ongoing investigation. We have to see; we have to wait until the investigation is over,” the official told the news organisation during a sit-in interview.
Sheikh Mohammed highlighted that such Qatar-targeted allegations have only been from the media, and noted the country itself has not yet received any such complaints from Belgium authorities.
“What we are reading and what we are hearing is that there’s an ongoing investigation that everybody should respect and we should look at those outcomes of this investigation.
“This problem is a problem that is happening in Europe for a European institution. It is better for them to look at their own institution and do all the steps required for them and not to drag our country’s name in such a situation,” he stressed.
Who is Panzeri?
Panzeri, a three-term socialist MEP, served in the European Parliament for 15 years since his election in 2004. During his time as a legislator, he focused on various areas such as employment, social rights, foreign affairs, global security, and development aid.
He chaired the delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries from 2009 to 2017 and later became the chair of the subcommittee on human rights, a position he held until his departure from the parliament in 2019. As a former MEP, he was granted permanent access to the parliament’s premises.
In September 2019, Panzeri founded a non-profit organisation in Brussels called Fight Impunity, with the aim of promoting the fight against impunity for serious human rights violations and crimes against humanity. The NGO did not appear on the EU’s Transparency Register, but shared an address with No Peace Without Justice, an NGO led by Niccolò Figà-Talamanca.
Since the corruption scandal broke out in mid-December, Panzeri has been accused by Eva Kaili and Francesco Giorgi of managing the money exchanges. A search of Panzeri’s home allegedly revealed over €600,000 in cash.
Despite his claims of innocence, Panzeri was detained in December 2022 and has since made statements about the alleged bribery under penitent status. Tarabella has also been accused of accepting money from Panzeri to allegedly “soften his speech” on the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, although he denies the charges.
The case has also led to questions about the involvement of other MEPs, with some state security reports and phone taps reportedly linking new suspects including Marie Arena to the allegations. However, Panzeri has insisted that Arena had nothing to do with the corruption scandal.
The case has raised concerns about corruption within the European Parliament and the influence of foreign officials on policy decisions.
While Panzeri and Tarabella deny any wrongdoing, the allegations have damaged the reputation of the European Parliament and shed doubt on the integrity of some of its members.
The investigation is ongoing, and it remains to be seen whether any other MEPs will be implicated in the scandal.
Panzeri will be released in the coming days and will have to face the judge every two months.