One of the MEPs implicated in the Qatargate corruption scandal has pleaded his innocence in front of his fellow MEPs at a parliamentary committee hearing, Le Soir and Belga News Agency have reported.
During a hearing held by the European Parliament's Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI), Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino (S&D) defended himself against allegations that he had accepted bribes from the Qatari and Moroccan Governments in exchange for supporting pro-Qatari and pro-Moroccan policies. The hearing was reportedly held at Cozzolino's request.
"My client, who has not yet been heard by the investigating judge, took the opportunity to explain himself in front of his colleagues," one of Cozzolino's lawyers, Dimitri de Beco, told Le Soir. "He has never received money or benefits, directly or indirectly, to influence his political decisions."
A vigorous defence
Cozzolino, who spoke for about fifteen minutes, claimed that his "critical" views of Qatar and Morocco were "manifestly incompatible " with the allegation that he had received illicit funds from either country's government.
In particular, Cozzolino stated that he had "voted in favour of the most important amendments to [a] motion condemning Qatar's behaviour", and that "the only resolution" that he supported pertaining to Morocco "contained a severe criticism of the Moroccan State in terms of its immigration [policy]".
Furthermore, he claimed that he was happy to "formally renounce" his parliamentary immunity as previously requested by the Belgian authorities and that he did so to "relieve the pressure on the European Parliament and in order to collaborate with the investigation".
- Qatar corruption scandal: Cozzolino to renounce parliamentary immunity
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Finally, Cozzolino suggested that he is only suspected of involvement in the scandal because he had hired Francesco Giorgi (one of the figures at the very centre of Qatargate) as a parliamentary assistant. Giorgi, who has already confessed to accepting bribes from Morocco and Qatar, is the former assistant of Italian former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri (S&D) and the partner of Greek MEP Eva Kaili (S&D): both of whom are also directly implicated in the scandal.
Cozzolino argued that he had hired Giorgi due to the fact that he was "one of the most brilliant civil servants in Brussels" and that it is "normal" to hire former assistants of MEPs who are not re-elected. He also insisted that he "was not aware of the activities of Panzeri and Giorgi".
The Committee on Legal Affairs is expected to issue its official recommendation on whether to waive Cozzolino's immunity on 31 January. On 13 February, MEPs will vote in a plenary session on whether to heed the Committee's recommendation.