Qatargate: Corruption probe unravels as defense kicks case to May

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BRUSSELS — Lawyers for the main suspects in the Qatargate corruption scandal entered the Palace of Justice on Tuesday seeking revenge — and they got it. 

More than a dozen defense lawyers successfully knocked the criminal investigation off course until at least next spring, massively delaying the probe into influence-buying by Qatar and Morocco at the European Parliament, and dealing it what they hope will be a mortal blow.

Lawyers for former European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili were the masterminds behind the surprise legal coup, compiling sufficient accusations that Belgian prosecutors mishandled the case to warrant an internal investigation, the court decided. This inquiry will focus on how evidence was collected and whether this breached the parliamentary immunity of the three EU lawmakers charged.

“It is no longer Qatargate but Belgium-gate!” declared Sven Mary, one of Kaili’s lawyers. “Secret services infiltrated the European Parliament, it’s going way too far,” he added after a meeting where magistrates approved an internal checkup that will run until May 2024.

Eric Van Duyse, spokesperson for the Belgian prosecutors’ office, countered: “The public prosecutor and the investigating judge should continue with the investigation,” He added, “The interpretation carried out by the lawyers is considered to be inconsistent.”

The prosecution said it intended to continue its investigation.

Joining Kaili in her push are lawyers for the two other sitting members of European Parliament who are charged, Andrea Cozzolino and Marc Tarabella. 

Kaili’s team argued police and spy services acted illegally when they went after her, disregarding her parliamentary immunity. This line of argument builds upon and incorporates a preexisting push from Tarabella’s team, which claimed the case was biased due to conflict-of-interest allegations against former investigative judge Michel Claise.

In a move that could further weaken the prosecution, defense lawyers may now gain access to almost the entire backlog of evidence collected by the police — possibly handing them more ammunition to find fault with the Belgians’ probe.

“The chamber judged that there was a real problem,” said Anthony Rizzo, a lawyer and a law professor at ULB, a university in Brussels, and who is not affiliated with the case. “It was a sufficiently serious matter to justify allowing each party access many elements of the investigative file.

“To my knowledge, this is unprecedented in Belgium for an investigation of this scale,” Rizzo told POLITICO.

Lawyers have until March to submit their arguments. In mid-May, another session will be called to assess when the final decision on this challenge will take place.

Belgian Euro Deputy Marc Tarabella and his lawyer Maxim Toller give a press conference regarding the ‘Qatargate’ scandal | Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

“The federal magistrate in charge of the case had hoped to wrap up the investigation much sooner than this, so this will obviously delay the case,” added Van Duyse of the Belgian prosecutor’s office.

This new timeline also tees up a possible decision on the suspects’ futures just before European and Belgian national elections in early June.

Kaili’s other problem 

In a sign of the growing confidence of Kaili’s defense team, Kaili is using the same arguments against the Belgian prosecution in launching a legal bid to defend her European Parliament immunity from any future Qatargate prosecution at the European Parliament. 

Kaili is requesting “to be protected by the European Parliament against the unlawful violation of her immunity by the secret services,” her lawyer, Spyros Pappas, said outside Parliament on Tuesday. For this bid to succeed, it will need the backing of a simple majority of EU lawmakers — a tall order considering Kaili’s involvement in a case that sullied the institution’s reputation. 

In an unrelated move, Eva Kaili herself attended a 30-minute hearing with other MEPs at the European Parliament on Tuesday relating to a separate legal case unconnected to Qatargate, in which she stands accused of misusing her official budget by orchestrating a scheme around fake jobs and kickbacks.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office requested Kaili’s immunity be lifted over the accusation, which her lawyer Pappas denied. “There was no intention of fraud,” he said, adding that Kaili owes Parliament an amount that is “less” than €100,000.

Kaili herself slipped out of the hearing via a backdoor.