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BRUSSELS — Nine months later, the blockbuster Qatargate trial of money-for-influence trafficking could be on the verge of collapse.
Eva Kaili, a former vice-president of the European Parliament who was arrested and charged with corruption in December, is now launching a bold legal action aimed at derailing the entire investigation, arguing that police and spy services acted illegally when they pursued her. And she can already count on Andrea Cozzolino, another MEP indicted in this case, to join her efforts.
Months of preparation by Kaili’s lawyers will come to a head at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Palais de Justice in Brussels, where the federal prosecutor has called a meeting to consider the legal challenge.
The first such gathering comes a year after Belgian authorities surreptitiously began investigating whether European Parliament lawmakers and officials were accepting bribes in exchange for political favors for Morocco and Qatar.
Two stars of the Brussels bar defending Kaili — Sven Mary and Christophe Marchand — claim that Belgian secret services and police violated EU laws protecting their client’s parliamentary immunity and potentially that of other suspects, according to a review of documents and interviews conducted by POLITICO.
Kaili’s lawyers filed a request for “legal review of the procedure” with the federal prosecutor’s office, which triggers a review of these allegations by three independent judges. In his brief, Kaili seeks to compel the court to “invite all parties to comment on this matter, to set a date for the continuation of the proceedings”. She maintains that “the parliamentary immunity which she enjoys has been violated and that the criminal proceedings brought against her should therefore be declared inadmissible”.
The surprise resignation in June of the main investigating judge in charge of the case, Michel Claise, accused of conflict of interest, has already dealt a hard blow to the investigation.
As the investigation progresses, Kaili’s efforts reinforce the sense that the defendants – even if found guilty – could be freed from accountability.
Before any legal proceedings began, Kaili’s lawyers argue, Qatargate investigators should have made a formal request to Parliament to lift his immunity – which did not happen.
Instead, her parliamentary immunity was lifted in December when Kaili was deemed to have been caught red-handed. Belgian police raided her Brussels apartment, arrested her and seized bags containing around €150,000 in cash. Other people were also targeted and at least €1 million in total was seized.
“If they believe that the evidence was collected in an illegitimate way, it cannot be used in court,” said Domenico Vincenzo Ferraro, Cozzolino’s lawyer, who was invited to the meeting. He said he and the lawyer for the third current MEP accused in the case, Marc Tarabella, had been approached to join Kaili’s defense. Ferraro confirmed that Cozzolino would join the request.
A summons – seen by POLITICO – shows that the guests include 13 current or former suspects in the so-called Qatargate scandal, ranging from European MPs to Qatari and Moroccan diplomats implicated in the affair.
These include alleged ringleader and former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri; and two figures suspected of corruption in Brussels, the Qatari Minister of Labor Ali Bin Samikh Al Marri and the Moroccan diplomat Abderrahim Atmoun. Kaili’s partner Francesco Giorgi, Panzeri’s former parliamentary aide, is also invited.
Tarabella’s lawyer, Maxim Töller, was not immediately available for comment when contacted by POLITICO. So far, the Belgian prosecutor’s office has not responded to a request for comment.
Defense attorneys may present their arguments based on what is called the “fruit of the poisonous tree.” This legal metaphor is used to describe how illegally obtained evidence diminishes the chances of a fair trial.
However, legal precedent in Belgium could complicate any attempt to quash a criminal investigation altogether, said Michaël Fernandez-Bertier, a partner at legal consultancy Ethics and Compliance and a board member of Transparency International Belgium, an anti-government NGO. -corruption.
According to this law, “irregularly collected evidence does not systematically lead to the cancellation of the entire investigation, part of the investigation or the irregular act: this depends on the seriousness of this irregularity” .
But due to the slowness of the Belgian judicial system, magistrates could take several months to rule on the defense lawyers’ requests.
Whether Kaili and other MEPs prevail or fail in their efforts to drop charges against them, those accused of corrupting politicians – diplomats – pose an even greater challenge to prosecution.
Al Marri and Atmoun, from Qatar and Morocco respectively, have never confronted Belgian law enforcement. Because they acted in the exercise of their official duties and therefore have full diplomatic immunity, it is very unlikely that they will ever appear in court.
But since suspects Panzeri and Giorgi had already confessed to participating in a corruption scheme and implicating several other suspects, they could not claim any violation of immunity.
Gregorio Sorgi and Camille Gijs contributed to the report.