Stunning new details have emerged regarding the extraordinary lengths to which former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri and his associate Francesco Giorgi — both of whom are currently under investigation for receiving bribes from Qatar — went to manipulate hearings at the European Parliament to shield their alleged paymasters from criticism.
According to Le Soir and Knack, on 10 October both Panzeri and Giorgi met with a Qatari delegation, which included the Gulf peninsula's Minister of Labour, Ali ben Samikh Al-Marri, in Brussels in a suite at Steigenberger Wiltcher's, a five-star hotel on Avenue Louise.
During the meeting — the details of which have been since revealed to the Belgian authorities through a combination of the hotel's CCTV footage, investigators' wiretapping of Panzeri's and Giorgi's phones, and recent testimony from Giorgi — Panzeri explained how the Qataris should "position themselves" during a forthcoming hearing on Qatar's human rights record at the European Parliament.
"The aim was to prepare Minister [Al-Marri] for this scheduled hearing in the European Parliament," Giorgi, who is now in custody, told federal investigators. "And by 'preparing', I mean explaining to him the European point of view and advising [Al-Marri] on how to react."
Giorgi further elaborated that his presence at the meeting was required as a translator, as Panzeri does not speak English. Le Soir added that the meeting, which lasted one-and-a-half hours, concluded with Panzeri and Giorgi "leaving the suite with a thicker bag than when they arrived".
Almost exactly a month later, on 14 November — less than a week before the start of the Qatar World Cup — Al-Marri attended the planned hearing, which took place in room 3G-3 of the European Parliament and was witnessed by approximately 200 people.
Those present included current and former MEPs, representatives of various human rights organisations, and trade union officials — including, notably, the former head of the International Trade Union Confederation, Luca Visentini: a close friend of Panzeri who is also under investigation for bribery.
Giorgi described how Al-Marri gave a speech defending Qatar's human rights record and accusing the country's Western critics of racism. According to Giorgi, Al-Marri's remarks were personally written by Panzeri and translated by Giorgi.
Giorgi mentioned that both he and Panzeri were particularly anxious about the potentially "uncontrolled" nature of the Q&A period, and that they both "thought that it could be useful if questions could be prepared in advance in order to lead the Minister of Qatar on a known path". The list of people both Giorgi and Panzeri believed would be suitable to ask such "prepared" questions included MEPs Alessandra Moretti and "maybe" Andrea Cozzolino (both S&D).
Contacted by Le Soir, Moretti denied ever having "received any direction from Panzeri regarding the minister's hearing". Cozzolino, whose parliamentary immunity is likely to soon be lifted in connection with the scandal, refused to comment.
Intriguingly, however, during the hearing Cozzolino is reported to have offered a fairly critical speech of Qatar's human rights record, and explicitly called on Qatar to publicly disseminate its data on migrant workers.
Tarabella to the rescue
Indeed, Cozzolino's comments were so negative that Giorgi immediately texted Panzeri, and asked him to get another MEP, Marc Tarabella — who was originally not planning to speak at the hearing — to make a few remarks in defence of Qatar.
Obligingly, Tarabella stood up and denounced the hypocrisy of colleagues who, he claimed, had never offered similarly critical remarks of countries which had previously hosted other major sporting events.
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Contacted by Le Soir, Tarabella's lawyer, Maxim Töller, claimed that his client "has nothing to reproach himself for" and that "he is ready to answer investigators' questions".
Echoing previous comments, Laurent Kennes, Pier Antonio Panzeri's lawyer, noted that "the investigation is underway and [his] client is detained", and that "he will only speak... with the judicial authorities and not on parallel investigations". He added that it was "scandalous that such elements of the investigation have been leaked to the press".