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European parliament hit by Qatar corruption scandal

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A Belgian judge is expected on Sunday to announce formal charges for several people arrested in an alleged corruption scandal involving World Cup host Qatar and the European parliament.

Over the weekend, authorities seized some €600,000 in cash and detained five people, in what appears to be one of the most significant corruption cases ever seen in the European parliament.

The allegations come as Qatar is the centre of world attention, with the World Cup semi finals and final to be played over the next week. It is the culmination of a tournament the Gulf state long sought but which has brought unprecedented scrutiny of its stance on gay rights, treatment of migrant workers and use of its wealth to bolster its role in the world.

While Belgian authorities have not named the suspects in the probe, European parliament vice-president Eva Kaili has been stripped of her duties in the parliament and of party membership by Greek socialist party Pasok.

“In the light of the ongoing judicial investigations by Belgian authorities, President Metsola has decided to suspend with immediate effect all powers, duties and tasks that were delegated to Eva Kaili in her capacity as vice-president of the European parliament,” a spokesman for European parliament president Roberta Metsola said in a statement.

Belgian authorities last week said that they were pursuing an investigation into “organised crime, corruption and money laundering”.

“For several months, investigators of the Federal Judicial Police have suspected a Gulf country of influencing economic and political decisions of the European parliament,” the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Friday.

“This is done by paying large sums of money or offering large gifts to third parties with a significant political and/or strategic position within the European parliament.” An official familiar with the investigation confirmed that the country in question is Qatar.

The news was first broken by Le Soir, the Belgian newspaper, which said those arrested also included a former MEP and a parliamentary assistant. Shortly after the news broke on Friday, Kaili was suspended both from her party Pasok and the Socialist group in the European parliament. The FT was unable to reach Kaili on her mobile phone.

Kaili, a former TV news presenter, and member of the Greek parliament with the centre left party, Pasok, joined the EU legislature in 2014 and in November she defended Qatar’s human rights record: “Qatar is a frontrunner in labour rights, abolishing kafala [its migrant labour sponsorship system] . . . Still, some here are calling to discriminate [against] them. They bully them and they accuse everyone that talks to them or engages of corruption. But still, they take their gas.”

The parliament was due to vote next week on granting Qatari nationals visa free travel to the bloc. That has been suspended over the weekend in response to the detentions.

The Greens/EFA group in parliament said on Saturday it would have voted against the measure.

Terry Reintke, co-president of the group, said there should be “zero tolerance against corruption and bribery”, adding that “if the suspicions are confirmed” Kaili should resign as an MEP.

Transparency International, the anti-corruption group, said the EU institutions needed an independent ethics regulator. “Over many decades, the parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop, with a combination of lax financial rules and controls and a complete lack of independent (or indeed any) ethics oversight,” said its director, former MEP Michiel van Hulten.

Additional reporting by Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens

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