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Qatargate: A scandal with an Italian character

More than fifty years ago, the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia issued a metaphorically veiled warning to Italy that the palm trees in the southernmost section of the country will migrate north as the climate warmed.

The "line of the palm," as described by Sciascia.

In basic terms, the warning was that the Sicilian mafia — and the eternal struggle it engendered between authorities and powerful outlaws, the law and corruption — will soon penetrate all of Italy. It was a delusion to imagine it would remain in Sicily.

Today it appears that the palm line has spread from Italy to the rest of Europe and to Brussels, the beating center of the EU. Bags of cash, under-the-table bribes, and a consulting firm laundering money — the claims emerging in the so-called Qatargate incident are textbook mafia-style corruption. And Italian suspects — but no mafia members — have been involved at each stage.

Even a fundamental rule used to extract confessions was imported from Italy – a provision that helped Italy flip and imprison mafia members for decades in Sicily and elsewhere.

This week, Italy entered the conflict, with Milan police apparently initiating an investigation into whether a local consultancy was used to launder bribes from Qatar to European Parliament members, firmly locating the scandal in the country.

In other words, Qatargate has an unique Italian character. Ironically, Italians are partially responsible for the potential corruption that has infiltrated Parliament, and they may also be able to eradicate it.

It is a remarkable emblem that reflects the changing nature of Europe in regards to corruption, politics, and the police charged with rooting out evil in the institutions — governmental and otherwise — that rule daily life.

Belgian police achieved a huge win earlier this year when they used the pentiti law — Italian for "repent" — to flip Antonio Panzeri, an Italian and former member of the European Parliament. According to the legislation, even unrepentant terrorists and mobsters might receive reduced sentences if they inform on their fellow criminals.

In exchange for a shorter prison sentence, Panzeri promised to identify people he bribed as the accused ringleader of the scheme. Several EU legislators have been arrested and charged with corruption since then.

Belgium is not alone in adopting Italian anti-organized-crime legislation. The Netherlands has drafted or is considering drafting portions of these measures to fight the proliferation of drug trafficking through its ports.

It is not surprising that anti-mafia legislation are being used to combat government corruption. Investigators frequently emphasize the correlation between removing the mafia and finding corruption. They emphasize that the former cannot flourish without the latter.

A second similarity between the expansion of organized crime across Europe and the apparent infiltration of government corruption into the European Parliament is that both have flourished under political institutions that have been hesitant to address what seems obvious to many.

Seasoned EU observers believed it was just a matter of time before something similar to Qatargate arose, which includes claims that Morocco may have improperly influenced Parliament decisions.

Similarly, organized crime has long left its mark on northern European countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and others. A recent escalation of local and international mafia violence in Sweden prompted a journalist to wonder aloud, "Is this Sweden... or Sicily?"

Italian investigators claim they began alerting northern authorities years ago that the cocaine trade was now passing through Rotterdam and Antwerp ports. Yet just two months ago, an 11-year-old girl was shot and died in Antwerp in what appears to be a drug-related incident.

Almost a decade ago, an Italian investigator remarked, "We speak of containers full of drugs, but it seems they don’t notice them."

Even as recently as six years ago, the Italian press was replete with articles describing how investigators suspected the "triangle" of Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Duisburg, Germany, welcomed "the bulk of the cocaine consumed in Europe." Recently, Italian anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri asserted that Germany is not Europe's "second country" in terms of mafia concentration.

Italy's pentiti regulations may help stop the spread, but they come with a gruesome price.

In the 1980s, members of the Mafia in Naples unjustly accused Enzo Tortora, one of Italy's most prominent and respected journalists, of drug trafficking. Tortora, who was innocent, was given a 10-year prison sentence.

Giorgio Bocca, an Italian journalist, called it as "the greatest example of wholesale judicial butcher shop."

Decades later, one of the mafia's pentiti admitted he had fabricated the incident. That was quite late. The nation's highest court maintained Tortora's innocence in 1987, but he died a year later at age 59.

Even repentant individuals have selective recollections and scores to settle. And a confession alone cannot establish guilt.

The law will always protect those who appear to be the most deserving of punishment, which is a bitter truth.

Giovanni Falcone, the judge who campaigned hard for the use of pentiti rules in mafia trials, was assassinated by a vehicle bomb. The gangster who exploded it afterwards benefited from the law by cooperating with the authorities. Today, while the judge is dead, the so-called people killer (u scannacristiani) has been released from prison and is living under police protection.

Similarly, if Panzeri is the brains of the cash-for-influence scheme in Brussels, he will still be rewarded for his initial cooperation.

The equation, however, is that in the fight against corruption and the mafia, injustice is a price worth paying. And in Brussels, granting Panzeri a reduced sentence in exchange for unraveling the EU's largest corruption scandal in years is evidently a modest sacrifice.

The alternative is for the palm line to continue to rise.


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