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Turncoat suspect blows open EU parliament graft probe

Under the terms of a plea deal struck with Belgian investigators, former Italian lawmaker Pier Antonio Panzeri has begun to spill the beans in the graft scandal rocking the European Parliament.

Panzeri is the central figure in a suspected network, dating back to 2014, that distributed cash bribes, allegedly funded by Qatar and Morocco, and his lawyer says he won’t hold back.

“Behind the term ‘state’s witness’ we tend to hear ‘rat’, but my client is no one’s enemy, he’s just someone who wants to collaborate,” Panzeri’s lawyer Laurent Kennes told AFP.

“It’s important to understand that no one’s giving him anything for free… he has decided to secure his own situation and to negotiate his sentence,” he said in an interview.

On January 17, to the surprise of many, Belgium’s federal prosecutor announced a deal had been reached with Panzeri, who has been charged under the so-called “Qatargate” investigation.

The scandal erupted in December when Belgian police raided several homes and offices connected to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), former MEPs and staff, making four arrests.

– Reduced sentence –

More than 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) in cash was seized, allegedly funds distributed by Panzeri on behalf of foreign powers seeking to influence European Union policy and statements.

Greek MEP Eva Kaili, a 44-year-old former newsreader and then one of the vice presidents of the EU’s only elected body, quickly became the public face of the scandal — but Panzeri was said to be the ringleader.

Kaili continues to protest her total innocence, but Panzeri, who was a socialist MEP between 2004 and 2019, has agreed to plead guilty and provide evidence about how the network operated.

He admits he took part in the web of corruption and is prepared to say who he worked with, in exchange for receiving a prison term of less than a year.

“It’s not simply a question of explaining that ‘On such and such a day I received 1,000 euros for the first time’, he’ll have to explain the whole background,” Kennes said.

Panzeri, the lawyer said, would lay out everything that had happened since 2014 — “or even before then, in terms of contacts” — a promise that could raise concerns among several suspects not yet charged.

Belgian socialist MEP Marc Tarabella denies receiving any cash or gifts from the graft network, but the parliament is mulling stripping him of his immunity from criminal investigation.

His house has been searched, and leaks from the inquiry to the Belgian press suggest investigators believe Panzeri sent him huge cash transfers.

Kennes would not be drawn on whether his client would implicate Tarabella.

“I would recall that Mr Panzeri’s declarations alone wouldn’t be enough to see someone condemned, they would have to be corroborated by other evidence,” he told AFP.

Like Kaili and her partner, Panzeri’s former parliamentary aide Francesco Giorgi, Panzeri is still remanded in custody, but unlike them, he is working closely with investigators.

– Worries over family –

“He will be interviewed several more times by investigators,” Kennes said. “The prosecutor can always cancel the deal if he concludes that the confession doesn’t correspond to reality.”

Panzeri is 68 years old, and a complex corruption trial can take several years to progress through the courts, so — the lawyer argued — the suspect has every reason to cooperate.

“He was very worried about his wife and daughter and now hopes for some generosity, it’s human and legitimate,” Kennes told AFP.

Belgian investigating magistrate Michel Claise also wants to hear from Panzeri’s wife, Maria Dolores Colleoni and their daughter Silvia, who have been arrested in Italy.

Kennes said he hopes they “will come to explain themselves freely in Belgium”.

For the past six weeks, both have been contesting a European arrest warrant, but this may not prove necessary if Panzeri’s cooperation eases investigators’ concerns.

“It is possible the need for an arrest warrant for them will decrease,” a source close to the case told AFP.