• Tuesday, December 05, 2023
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‘Qatargate’ judge steps aside after conflict of interest allegations

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Michel Claise’s son has founded a business with the son of an MEP linked to the affair

The Belgian judge in charge of the “Qatargate” investigation into alleged corruption in the European parliament has stepped aside from the case following concerns over a potential conflict of interest.

The decision by Michel Claise to recuse himself came after “elements appeared recently . . . [that] could raise questions about the objective functioning of the investigation”, the federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Monday.

The statement refers to revelations that, in 2018, the prosecuting judge’s son Nicolas Claise co-founded a business selling CBD — a cannabis derivative — products with Ugo Lemaire, the son of Maria Arena, an MEP closely associated with Pier Antonio Panzeri, one of the suspects in the Qatargate case.

Claise has stepped aside “as a matter of caution and in order to allow justice to continue its work calmly and to maintain the necessary separation between private and family life and professional responsibilities”, the statement said.

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A spokesman for Belgian justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said Claise had voluntarily stepped aside to avoid the “perception of a conflict of interest”, adding: “This will have no impact on the course of this case.”

Another prosecuting judge, Aurélie Dejaiffe, has taken control of the investigation.

Claise’s withdrawal is the latest turn in the probe into alleged attempts by Qatar and Morocco to influence EU legislation.

The so-called Qatargate affair has transfixed Brussels since police raided European parliament offices in December 2022. They seized €1.5mn in cash and arrested several MEPs, including Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP who previously served as vice-president of the parliament, charging them with money laundering and participation in an organised criminal group.

Arena, who has been cited in the file but not questioned or charged, quit as chair of the parliament’s human rights committee after press reports that she failed to declare free flights she had received from Qatar.

Panzeri, a former MEP who has confessed to taking bribes and is co-operating with the investigation, preceded her as chair. His evidence has been a key part of the probe and he is also closely associated with Arena.

Maxim Töller, lawyer for Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella, one of the arrested MEPs and who has denied any wrongdoing, was the first to identify the link between Nicolas Claise and Lemaire. He called on Monday for Michel Claise to step aside.

“What bothers me in this dossier is that he knew about the conflict of interest from the first day that the name of Maria Arena was cited. And despite all that, he took charge of the case,” Töller said in an interview with Belgian television’s RTL News on Tuesday.

“It seems that the relationship [between Arena and Panzeri] is a much more important relationship than has been described until now,” he added. “They are not checking what [Panzeri] says is true . . . It’s just his word that has justified the detention of my client.”

All those charged, except Panzeri, who remains under house arrest, have been released pending a possible trial.

The European parliament has discussed a range of reforms aimed at preventing a repeat of the Qatargate affair but critics say progress is slow and that the parliament lacks the appetite to regulate itself.

Only half of the 14 reforms proposed by parliament president Roberta Metsola in January, including limiting access for former members and the creation of a new entry log for lobbyists, have been enacted.

Gabriele Bischoff, a socialist lawmaker responsible for leading parliament negotiations on an EU-wide ethics body, said that the Socialists and Democrats group, to which Panzeri, Tarabella and Kaili belonged, had been “very disappointed, and that’s a diplomatic formulation” when the scandal came to light.

She said it was important not to brush the episode “under the carpet” but instead pursue reform, particularly as the EU’s largest elected institution approached next June’s elections. “We have seen that self-regulation is not working,” she said.

Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels