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Does little Belgium have what it takes to convict the alleged perpetrators of a sprawling corruption scandal engulfing the European Parliament?
This question hung over conversations in the corridors of Brussels after the so-called Qatargate allegations emerged in December. But last week Belgian prosecutors made a major breakthrough.
Former Italian EU lawmaker Pier Antonio Panzeri, one of four suspects currently being held in the investigation, reached an agreement last Tuesday with Belgian prosecutors to exchange information with a view to a reduced sentence.
Panzeri’s agreement to cooperate with the authorities is a big boost – not only for the investigation, but also for the Belgians involved, who depend on it very much.
Key Belgian politicians, including Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, have boasted of the independent work of their country’s judicial, police and intelligence branches, which led to the arrests. For them, this is a sign that Belgium takes its role as host country for the EU institutions very seriously.
The Qatargate scandal threatened the credibility of these institutions after prosecutors went public with their investigation in early December. Belgian federal police have raided at least 20 locations in Brussels, seizing mobile phones, computers and more than 1.5 million euros in cash. Four people have been arrested on preliminary charges, amid allegations that the governments of Qatar and Morocco handed out large sums of money to trick EU politicians into doing their bidding.
Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne told POLITICO that through this investigation, the Justice Ministry is “showing its teeth”.
“I am confident that the federal prosecution will do everything possible and get to the bottom of this case,” he said, adding: “It is no coincidence that the law used is the ‘pentiti’ law, because this law was a useful tool in the fight against the Italian mafia.
The minister refers to Belgium’s so-called pentiti law, which is only used in the current EU corruption case for the second time since its creation in 2018. The first – a money laundering investigation money, corruption and match-fixing in Belgium football in 2021 – was also led by Michel Claise, the Belgian investigating judge now leading the Qatargate investigation.
The second time around, the challenge facing Claise – known in Belgium for fighting corruption – is to actually deliver Qatargate amid widespread media leaks into the investigation.
This means that there is even more pressure on Belgian justice to present hard evidence.
For the defendants, the widespread leaks since the arrests began are a bad omen — and welcome ammunition.
Maxim Töller, the lawyer for Belgian Socialist MEP Marc Tarabella, strongly criticized the investigation. Tarabella’s house has been raided and Belgian investigators have asked the European Parliament to waive his immunity – although he has not yet been formally charged.
Töller told Claise “there was a huge procedural problem” due to the leaking of key documents to the media.
Belgian justice considers that the leaks – which include detailed overviews of the investigation, court documents and information from the intelligence services – could interfere with the case.
Van Quickenborne told POLITICO last month that repeatedly leaking information is “dangerous” to ensuring justice. The federal prosecutor opened a separate investigation into the leaks, though that didn’t stop them.
Defense lawyers for suspects could rely on these leaks to drill procedural holes in the case, or argue that the right to professional secrecy, respect for the presumption of innocence and the right of access to documents seals have been breached. According to the European Convention on Human Rights, every accused person has the right to a “fair and public trial”.
But in practice, leaks rarely lead to the end of a case, said Raf Verstraeten, a lawyer at the University of Leuven.
“The leaks are unfortunate – but the idea that it would destroy the whole trial is a very, very long shot. We are absolutely not there,” he said. According to Verstraeten, much more is needed before that a trial be dismissed for unfairness. “The fact that there are leaks is unfortunate, but it does not immediately translate into a decision that there is no fair trial.”
No more secrets
What leaks can do is hamper cooperation with other police forces and justice systems – and intelligence, which is essential for Belgians. Above all, they risk undermining trust between the various departments involved in the case.
The head of Belgium’s intelligence agency, Francisca Bostyn, told Belgian media that the leaked case “puts us in trouble with our foreign colleagues. Now it looks like Belgium can’t keep any secrets. Frankly, I think it’s a problem that all of our methods are made public.
Intelligence from Belgian State Security and other secret services played a key role in launching the judicial investigation. Yet using information from intelligence services is not always straightforward in a criminal investigation, said two investigators who are not involved in this specific case but have worked with intelligence services on other folders.
“Intelligence services often give you a lot of key information, but not all of that information is usable in court,” one said. The sources are also not always divulgable, the investigator pointed out. “This can make it difficult for investigators and the prosecution to build a strong case.”
In Belgium, information from intelligence services can be used as supporting evidence, but must be accompanied by other evidence.
Analysis of seized money should help prove where it was taken and by whom. Above all, it must show if and how the money could actually be linked to influencing political decision-making in the European Parliament. If this analysis does not provide enough evidence, the investigation could still fail.
Panzeri’s cooperation will be essential to build this file. If the Italian shares the information he has pledged, it could include details of the financial arrangements, the countries involved, who benefited and who else took part. Panzeri also agreed to release the names of those he admits to bribing.
This means that for those who still have something to hide, now is the time to get nervous.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Nektaria Stamouli, Elena Giordano and Gregorio Sorgi contributed reporting.