BRUSSELS – Belgian authorities have launched a major operation to arrest and question five people, including former and current members and employees of the European Parliament, as part of an investigation into alleged bribes by Qatar, have announced officials in Brussels.
The police operation, which began on Friday and was still ongoing on Saturday, focuses on what could be the biggest scandal in the history of the European Parliament. Among those interviewed, according to a Belgian official involved in the investigation, was Eva Kaili from Greece, one of the parliament’s vice-presidents.
“For several months, investigators from the Federal Judicial Police have suspected a Gulf country of influencing the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament,” said the Belgian prosecutor’s office in its press release. “This is done by paying large sums of money or giving large gifts to third parties who hold an important political and/or strategic position within the European Parliament.”
Belgian police said in a detailed statement on Friday that their searches of 16 locations – including private residences across the capital, Brussels – turned up a suitcase with 600,000 euros in cash ($633,000). They also said they seized computers and cell phones.
Although the police did not name the country linked to the investigation in their press release, the Belgian official directly involved in the investigation and an MEP who requested anonymity because she was not authorized talking to the media, said it was Qatar. The Belgian official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to publicly disclose further details.
He said the investigation had been ongoing for at least four months and the possible crimes took place during that time and potentially earlier.
The investigation comes as Qatar hosts the Men’s World Cup amid intense scrutiny.
The scandal is likely to embarrass the Qatari government, which has been criticized for exploiting migrant workers who helped build the tournament’s infrastructure. In addition, the authoritarian country’s criminalization of homosexuality has become a flashpoint between some Western teams and fans and world football’s governing body FIFA. And corruption was also already at the center of concerns.
A Qatari government official said on Saturday the government was not aware of any details of a European investigation. The official said any allegations of Qatari misconduct were grossly misinformed and that the state was operating in full compliance with international laws and regulations.
Belgian prosecutors who are questioning the five detainees have 48 hours, until Sunday afternoon, to charge them.
The Belgian official said those detained were Ms. Kaili; his life partner, Francesco Giorgi, who works as an assistant to another EU lawmaker; Luca Visentini, the recently elected leader of the global workers’ union, the International Trade Union Confederation; and Pier Antonio Panzeri, former Member of the European Parliament. The identity of the fifth person in custody was not known.
Ms Kaili has been a prominent EU lawmaker since 2014, taking on high-profile causes including cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence. Hours after news of her detention became public, her party, Greece’s centre-left PASOK, expelled her from its ranks; the centrist group of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament suspended it.
“We are appalled by the allegations of corruption within the European institutions,” said Jan Bernas, spokesperson for the parliamentary group. “The S&D Group has zero tolerance for corruption. We are the first to support a thorough investigation and full disclosure.
Given the seriousness of the accusations, he said the group is calling for the suspension of all work by the European Parliament on files and votes in plenary relating to the Gulf countries, in particular those involving visas and visits.
Mr. Panzeri, the former deputy also detained, had formerly been a member of the grouping of socialists and democrats. The office of his nongovernmental organization, Fight Impunity, did not respond to a request for comment.
The International Trade Union Confederation, of which Mr. Visentini was the head, declined to comment on the case.
Mr Giorgi’s colleagues in the European Parliament as well as his boss, Andrea Cozzolino, an Italian MP, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Ms. Kaili’s parliamentary office on the 10th floor of the building in Brussels, and Mr. Giorgi’s office on the 15th floor, were both sealed off by Belgian police, according to parliamentary staff who saw the police cordons in person and asked not to be named because they were not authorized to comment.
A spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor did not have the names of the lawyers of those questioned. The New York Times called and texted Ms. Kaili’s number several times, but it was turned off. In a Facebook post to The Times about the investigation, Ms Kaili’s sister, Mantalena Kaili, said there was “no news from our end yet”.
The European Parliament is one of the three key institutions of the European Union, although it is widely considered the least powerful. Its 705 members, elected in their home countries and serving five-year terms, do not initiate legislation, but their approval is usually required to pass it. They can also censor the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, and play an often high-profile role in scrutinizing the bloc’s policies.
Despite their limited institutional power, European lawmakers are often approached by lobbyists from nations, industries and interest groups seeking to influence public opinion on their causes and win allies in the room where important policies are debated.
Ms Kaili has been a strong supporter of Qatar in the months leading up to the World Cup and recently visited the country on an official trip.
“Today, the World Cup in Qatar is proof, in fact, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historic transformation of a country with reforms that have inspired the Arab world,” Ms. Kaili said in a speech to the European Parliament last month. “I was the only one to say that Qatar is a forerunner when it comes to labor rights,” she said, particularly on the abolition of kafala, a system that allowed employers to hold the passports of their workers and thus effectively control their ability to leave the country or change jobs.
“Yet some here are calling to discriminate against them,” Ms Kaili said of Europe’s approach to Qatar. “They bully them and blame anyone who talks to them or engages in corruption.”
Viviane Nereim contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Niki Kitsantonis from Athens, and Jason Horowitz From Rome.