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EU-Qatargate scandal: A 'murky' prosecution case

Jack Parrock in Brussels
October 28, 2023

A central figure in the EU's Qatargate corruption scandal has spoken out against the Belgian investigators dealing with the case.

A photo of Niccolo Figa Talamanca from 2021 showing him sitting in a crowded room
Figa-Talamanca: "Reputational damage against me is enormous"Image: Gloria Imbrogno/ZUMA Wire/imago images

A former suspect in the case of the European Union's Qatargate corruption scandal has called into question the integrity of the Belgian state's investigation into the alleged crimes.

After his unconditional release from prison in February, Niccolo Figa-Talamanca has decided to speak out in an interview with DW, alleging the Belgian justice system is not handling the case correctly. "The way they're doing it is all very murky," he said.

Figa-Talamanca, 51, was one of four people arrested in December 2022 raids on suspicion of being involved in a cash-for-favors corruption ring in the European Parliament. His human rights organization, No Peace Without Justice, was linked to the corruption scandal.

Following his release, he was reinstated as secretary-general of the nongovernmental organization.

The other suspects in the case are Greek Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Eva Kaili, her life partner Francesco Giorgi, and his boss, former Italian MEP Antonio Panzeri. Subsequently, two other MEPs, Marc Tarabella and Andrea Cozzolino, were also arrested. Cash found in the raids totaled €1.5 million ($1.58 million), none of which was in the home of Figa-Talamanca.

Former EU Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili and her partner Francesco Giorgi
Former EU Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili and her partner Francesco Giorgi are suspects in the Qatargate scandalImage: Eurokinissi/AFP

The accused are suspected of taking bribes from Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for using their political clout to sway EU policies in favor of those countries.

Despite his release after two months behind bars in Brussels, Figa-Talamanca's name remains on the case file — in Belgium, charges can only be formally dropped once the case goes to trial.

Figa-Talamanca said having a career devoted to supporting people defending human rights is leading him to speak out against what he sees as "murky" prosecution practices.

'Mafiosi' undertones

His decision to voice his concerns publicly comes after the former judge on the closed Qatargate file, Michael Claise, gave interviews to a Belgian radio station on September 9 this year.

"Everything is in the file. The truth is found there, not in the television studios nor in certain magazines," Claise said. "The truth will explode one day in the face of manipulators who try to distort it."

For Figa-Talamanca, those comments ignite serious concerns about the handling of the investigation, while there is very little information on the case files in the public domain.

"People who make vague threats and speak by allusion cannot then complain and cannot ascribe mafiosi methods to others," said the Italian NGO head. "Because this is what mafiosi do themselves."

The Belgian justice system has faced a deluge of criticism for leaks to the press from the investigation.

DW contacted Claise for a response to all of Figa-Talamanca's allegations. He responded to our request by saying: "Impossible. My job is built on secrets."

The judge was eventually recused from the case in June 2023 when it was revealed that his son is in business with the son of Belgian MEP Maria Arena, another potential suspect in the case.

Claise has also filed his own legal case to try to identify the perpetrators of what he calls a public smear campaign against him, according to Le Soir newspaper.

Judge Aurélie Dejaiffe is now in charge of the Qatargate file.

Origins of Qatargate

One of the long-standing questions of the Qatargate scandal is what exactly prompted the investigation in the first place, which Belgian authorities have never clarified. 

Figa-Talamanca suggests it could have started with an investigation into him personally, following a report he commissioned on corruption he believed was happening inside the European Parliament.

He was part of a collective of NGOs in February 2022 to commission and publish an "Undue Influence Report" that alleges money from the United Arab Emirates was being used to bribe MEPs, none of whom were later implicated in Qatargate.

There are no indications that the allegations in the report were investigated by police and were ever substantiated.

Figa-Talamanca believes the report sparked sufficient anger with Emirati authorities, who then began looking into him.

In July 2023, the European Network of Investigative Journalists released a set of leaks that claimed the United Arab Emirates tasked a Swiss private intelligence company called Alp Services to run "character assassination" campaigns against supporters of their regional rivals, Qatar.

Figa-Talamanca was one of their 18 targets. His theory is that those investigations hit on the corrupt practices of Qatargate suspect Antonio Panzeri, with whom Figa-Talamanca was sharing an office at the time.

"Originally, my thought was that having caught the others [Kaili, Panzeri and Giorgi] red-handed with cash in their homes, I was thrown in for good measure as somebody who was obviously bothering a friendly country [UAE] by denouncing their undue influence in European affairs," Figa-Talamanca said.

"Now, looking back, it might have been the other way round, that the undue influence report exposed them [the UAE], and they wanted to find anything they could on me or around me."

DW reached out to the Belgian prosecutor for a response. "In regard [to] the secrecy of the instruction and in the interest of the inquiry, we can't answer your questions," was the office's reply.

Concrete accusations

Figa-Talamanca said that during his interviews with Belgian investigators, they asked him about an expensive designer watch gifted to him during an advisory trip to Qatar's National Human Rights Commission.

He denies that accepting the watch amounts to corruption. "It was valued at €4,000, and it still belongs to my organization, not to me personally," protested Figa-Talamanca to DW. "Not accepting it would have been rude."

The exact details of the Belgian prosecutor's case against the Qatargate suspects are still under wraps.

"There is nothing specific that I'm accused of, so it's impossible for me to defend myself," Figa-Talamanca said. 

Antonio Panzeri
Former MEP Antonio Panzeri gave interviews to Belgian investigators, the transcripts of which were leaked publiclyImage: Marc Dossmann/EU/European Parliament/AFP

Statements under duress?

He also questions whether testimonies given in prison by some co-defendants can be relied upon.

Leaked transcripts of interviews with Antonio Panzeri and Francesco Giorgi reveal admissions of their guilt and insights into the network of corruption. Those transcripts appear to clear Figa-Talamanca of any criminal involvement, but despite that, he now claims they may be untrustworthy.

"Do we accept that what they said is specific and correct?" he said. "The circumstances of detention in St. Gilles [prison] are ones that lead you to tell investigators whatever they want to hear to gain your freedom."

Similar claims were made by Kaili, who still protests her innocence.

"Panzeri's confessions were obtained under duress," said the Greek MEP in an interview with French newspaper Liberation. "If I had mentioned important names, I would have been released immediately and returned to my daughter."

The Belgian prosecutor's office again declined to respond to DW's request for comment on this matter.

Reputational rehabilitation

Figa-Talamanca said giving this interview to DW was part of his campaign to clear his name. Being linked to an international corruption scandal has had a greatly detrimental effect on his professional work as a human rights defender.

"Redress for what has happened to me will never exist," sighed Figa-Talamanca. "The reputational damage against me and the organization I represent is enormous."

In the meantime, Figa-Talamanca fears the case has exposed massive pitfalls in the Belgian justice system.

"If somebody like me, the secretary-general of a well-known human rights organization, is subject to this behavior in countries like Belgium, then we really have lost any sort of compass," he said.

The claims made by Figa-Talamanca in this article may contradict evidence that comes to light as the legal proceedings of the Qatargate case progress.

Edited by: Rosie Birchard