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The 'Qatargate' committee of the EU

All roads lead to the European Parliament's sub-committee on human rights in a broad criminal inquiry.

Maria Arena accuses her secretary.

The Socialist MEP, who chairs the European Parliament's human rights committee, accepted a trip to Qatar but failed to properly declare that the Qatari government paid for her airfare and hotel.

Arena agreed to the administrative misbehaviour, but blamed it on her office assistant, who she said did not complete the necessary documentation.

If she is found to have violated the institution's code of conduct, the senior MEP might face fines such as a cash penalty of up to €10,140 or being barred from representing the Parliament for a year - but such penalties are rarely implemented.

Her blunder may be little more than a footnote in the midst of the corruption scandal rocking Brussels, with spectacular claims that the governments of Qatar and Morocco lavished cash and gifts on EU members in order to get them to do their bidding. During a series of raids last month, police confiscated €1.5 million.

Despite the fact that Arena's "mistake" is minor in comparison to the charges brought against others, the human rights committee she leads is now at the centre of the storm.

For the first time, the full scope of Qatar's ties to the committee may be revealed. An investigation reveals: a special deal was negotiated between the Gulf state and the former chair of the EU panel; major criminal suspects worked behind the scenes with the committee; and suspicions that some parliamentary hearings were imbalanced.

So far, four people have been charged with preliminary corruption, money laundering, and membership in a criminal organisation in the Belgian authorities' so-called Qatargate investigation. Three of them are members of the same committee.

Pier Antonio Panzeri, another socialist and former MEP who previously chaired the human rights committee; Francesco Giorgi, Panzeri's ex-assistant who has since worked for one of the committee's current members; and Giorgi's partner, Eva Kaili, a Greek Socialist MEP who was ousted as Parliament's vice president after the Qatargate allegations surfaced. Niccol Figà-Talamanca, the fourth person detained on the same preliminary allegations, is also inextricably tied to this panel of MEPs.

Andrea Cozzolino, another Socialist MEP on the committee, is currently under investigation as part of the corruption probe after Belgian authorities requested that his immunity be revoked. Cozzolino has denied wrongdoing and requested that his immunity be revoked so that he can clear his name.

It is unclear what exact acts these persons are accused of committing. Beyond the broadest parameters, the prosecutor's office has not publicly divulged details of the charges against them.

The concerns that are currently swirling around these senior Brussels individuals and the Parliament's human rights committee, however, cut to the heart of the EU's credibility and political authority.

One of the European Union's basic founding pillars is its historic dedication to human rights, and this panel of MEPs serves as the Parliament's protector of those ideals. Even though it is not a legislative powerhouse, the committee is powerful and sets the agenda in public discourse.

The organisation, known as "DROI" in EU-shorthand for the French droits de l'homme, casts a light on human rights violations committed by nations outside the EU, attracting international attention and making it an excellent target for lobbying.

Arena and her colleagues must now decide if this group of MEPs has devolved into a zombie panel infiltrated by foreign countries seeking to whitewash their own human rights records.

Arena is not a person of interest in the criminal investigation. She vehemently denies any misconduct and vehemently rejects suggestions that her group is anything less than a fully legitimate entity performing critical job. When the criminal investigation began, she temporarily stepped down as chair.

Nonetheless, several of her coworkers are deeply concerned.

Hit for nothing

Hannah Neumann, the Greens' DROI spokesperson, is also the chairman of a separate parliamentary Delegation for Relations with the Arab Peninsula. She expressed concern about witnesses at the human rights committee being given free rein to attack Qatar's political adversaries, such as the UAE or Saudi Arabia.

Neumann said: “It was sometimes difficult for me, to see Qatar being allowed to make its points at length.  

"Doha's opponents, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, were aggressively assailed by NGOs, some of whom had unknown funding, and were unable to defend themselves in the sessions," she claimed. "Let me be clear: they have all of their human rights issues, and it is important that we address all of them, but the way this unfolded in DROI had an imbalance at times."

One meeting in particular stood out for Neumann.

Arena was chairing a committee session in chamber 4Q1 of the Parliament's József Antall building in Brussels at 5.55 p.m. on May 10, last year. She grinned as she leaned in toward her desk microphone, wearing a soft, pastel-yellow jacket and pendant earrings. Then she formally launched a "exchange of opinions on the human rights impact of Gulf countries' foreign involvement." She called her key expert witness, NGO CEO Nicola Giovannini, to testify.

Giovannini, dressed in a neat white shirt and a dark tie, delivered a 237-page report from Droit au Droit, the small NGO he manages. He declined to reveal who paid for the publication, but its goal was clear: the UAE, he claimed, was using sleazy lobbying tactics to make Brussels dance to its tune.

The UAE has long been one of Qatar's most ardent foes.

Six months before the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the hearing took place. It may have been an occasion for parliamentarians to address Doha's efforts to put a positive gloss on the football tournament, following years of outrage in Qatar over migrant worker mistreatment. Instead, the speakers concentrated on the operations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of Qatar's biggest regional enemies.

Not merely what Giovannini said about Qatar's enemies makes Giovannini's appearance at this committee meeting relevant in the light of the Qatargate affair. It is because he held another role while operating Droit à Droit. He was the public affairs coordinator for No Peace Without Justice, a larger human rights NGO with ties to the Qatari government that is now under investigation by Belgian authorities.

'I have nothing to conceal.'

"We have nothing to conceal," Giovannini stated as he presented his report to MEPs that day. "There are no puppet masters at work behind our organisation." Nonetheless, he did not reveal his position at No Peace Without Justice. Arena, who was chairing the meeting, didn't either. Giovannini has not been accused of any misconduct.