The unprecedented bribery investigation has shaken the Brussels establishment to the core as it implicates legislators, non-governmental organisations, and foreign powers, prompting soul-searching in the European parliament.
After leaving parliament in 2019, Panzeri, now 67, set up a human rights group in Brussels, called Fight Impunity.
Panzeri’s contacts, which he built up during his time chairing a parliament grouping in charge of relations with Morocco and other Arab nations, meant that Fight Impunity quickly became a prominent organization in a chamber where there are more than 13,000 registered lobbyists and many unregistered ones competing for influence.
The NGO appeared to operate as a respectable human rights group, with prominent personalities on its board, including former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, France’s former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve and former European commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, as well as Emma Bonino, an Italian ex-commissioner. They have now resigned from the Fight Impunity board and denied any wrongdoing. There are no allegations of wrongdoing against them and they are not under investigation.
The NGO’s interactions with the European Parliament, organizing events and drafting reports, were not out of the ordinary.
In December 2019, Fight Impunity held an event featuring Mogherini. In June 2022, the parliament hosted a two-day conference organized by the NGO, with speakers including David Miliband, former UK foreign minister and president of the International Rescue Committee, the US-based charity. Also at the conference was Luca Visentini, head of the International Trade Union Confederation. He has previously been criticized for his soft stance on workers’ rights in Qatar, a point he has rejected. He was detained last Friday but released “under conditions”, according to the Belgian federal prosecutor. He has denied wrongdoing. On Thursday, he temporarily stepped down from his office.
In excerpts of legal documents seen by the Financial Times, it is alleged that Fight Impunity has bank accounts in Morocco and Qatar. Panzeri’s former parliamentary aide Francesco Giorgi has made a confession, according to a person familiar with the case.
The allegations come while Qatar is at the centre of world attention as the host of the football World Cup, a tournament that has brought unprecedented scrutiny of its treatment of migrant workers, ban on homosexuality and use of its wealth to bolster its role in the world.
MEPs passed a softer-than-expected resolution on human rights in Qatar ahead of the tournament. Kaili, who is in a relationship with Giorgi, praised Qatar as a “frontrunner of labour rights” and sought to water down criticism of the Gulf state. She also voted in favour of granting Qataris visa-free travel to Europe and sought to persuade other members to follow suit. The full parliamentary vote on this has now been suspended.
According to the Belgian request for the transfer of Panzeri’s wife and daughter seen by the FT, a wiretap recorded Panzeri and his wife talking about the need to open new bank accounts to hide money. Panzeri, his wife and his daughter also discussed luxury holiday plans and referred to a €100,000 vacation they had taken together, which was allegedly paid for by Qatar. They also allegedly spoke about gifts from a Moroccan ambassador. The Moroccan embassy did not respond to requests for comment.