EU graft scandal probe homes in on Brussels meeting days before World Cup: Reports

As the probe into the cash-for-influence scandal in the European Parliament continues, investigators have now homed in on a meeting of the Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, days before the football World Cup in Qatar began. A report by the Guardian on Wednesday (January 18) said the meeting was held on November 14 last year in Belgium’s capital city Brussels where Qatar’s labor minister Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, defended his nation’s record on the rights of workers. During the meeting, al-Marri told Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that reforms were undertaken in a short space of time so it was only natural that the government faced difficulties, the Guardian report said.

However, MEPs criticized the labor rights record of Qatar with one MEP, a football aficionado, saying he would not watch a single game while another parliamentarian termed the Qatar World Cup as “the World Cup of shame,” the report added.

One of the key suspects in the corruption scandal, former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri had written Oatari minister Ali bin Samikh al-Marri’s speech for the November 14, 2022 meeting, the Le Soir newspaper said citing a judicial document. Panzeri advised al-Marri how to position himself and also called on old friends in the Parliament to ask questions to lead the minister on a known path.

Before the above meeting, Panzeri and Francesco Giorgi – another suspect in the graft scandal – held a meeting with a Qatari delegation, which included al-Marri, at the Steigenberger Wiltcher hotel in Brussels. CCTV footage from the hotel showed Panzeri and Giorgi taking elevators to a private meeting in a suite on October 9. The meeting concluded after 90 minutes and CCTV footage showed Panzeri and Giorgi leaving with “a bag thicker than when they arrived”, Le Soir reported citing an investigation report.

Speaking to investigators, Francesco Giorgi said the meeting aimed to prepare al-Marri for the hearing scheduled at the Parliament. “By prepare, I mean explain to him the European point of view and how he should react,” he added.

The Guardian report on Wednesday pointed out that Pier Antonio Panzeri had rightly anticipated the criticism of Qatar’s record on the rights of migrant workers from several MEPs when the subcommittee on human rights met on November 14. Citing judicial documents, Le Soir further reported that Panzeri contacted serving MEPs asking them to intervene in the debate. These MEPs included Marc Tarabella (from Belgium) and Andrea Cozzolino (from Italy).

During the November 14 meeting, Andrea Cozzolino veered off script by asking Qatari labor minister al-Marri to further clarify wages and working conditions, but ended by asking how the Parliament could be more involved in overseeing labor standards in the Middle Eastern country, the Guardian report said.

On the other hand, Marc Tarabella accused the critical MEPs of basing their assertions on outdated information and urged them to respect Qatar’s journey. Tarabella said such MEPs failed to criticize Russia and China over the Sochi Winter Olympics and Beijing Summer Games. This week, the Parliament launched a process to remove immunity from Tarabella and Cozzolino, after a request from Belgian prosecutors, the report added.

The above developments come as Pier Antonio Panzeri struck a deal with Belgian prosecutors to provide information about the graft scandal regarding the names of countries involved and the payment of the bribes made. Issuing a statement, the prosecutors said in return, Panzeri would get a limited sentence including imprisonment, a fine and confiscation of one million euros in assets.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament chose Marc Angel as one of the chamber’s vice presidents to replace Greek lawmaker Eva Kaili- after she was removed following her arrest in the graft scandal.

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