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.
Niccol Figà-Talamanca, one of the four defendants now incarcerated in prison on preliminary corruption allegations, was Giovannini's employer at No Peace Without Justice.
Figà-Talamanca, too, played a role in that same May 10 committee hearing, helping to organise it behind the scenes. Two emails indicate that he was involved in meeting coordination and served as an unofficial contact between speakers and the committee.
People familiar with the inner workings of parliamentary committees acknowledged that, while this arrangement did not violate any hard-and-fast norms, it was still unusual, especially since No Peace Without Justice was not on the agenda that day. "I am confident it will be a truly memorable session," Figà-Talamanca said to prospective speakers in one of the emails.
A lawyer representing Figà-Talamanca stated that his behind-the-scenes presence in that hearing was part of his NGO's usual human rights lobbying at the European Parliament on human rights issues ranging from Afghanistan to Brazil.
In a democratic country, such legal human rights advocacy is fundamental to the proper functioning of democratic institutions and should not be used to imprison people," the lawyer added. Arena did not respond when asked whether Figà-Talamanca played a part in organising the committee hearing on May 10.
The following day, Arena asked officials from Panzeri's NGO, Fight Impunity, to give their annual report to her committee. Fight Impunity and No Peace Without Justice are both registered at the same opulent address in Brussels, 41 Rue Ducale, opposite the royal park.
As a reminder, Panzeri was Arena's predecessor as committee chair. He is now being jailed on preliminary charges with Figà-Talamanca.
Arena was in Doha on May 8 and 9, just before the hearing, on a trip paid for by the Qatari government. Her goal was to attend a human rights workshop called 'The European Union and Human Rights' hosted by Qatar's National Human Rights Committee. Figà-Talamanca was another attendee whose travel and lodging were also covered by Qatar.
"The meeting in Doha was intriguing to better understand the country's human rights policy and how it fits in with the announced reforms," Arena said of her participation in the workshop. The fees were borne by Qatar's human rights committee."
"I was merely invited to say a few words about the importance of human rights and their universality," Arena explained. Despite a photo of her speaking at a podium with the Parliament's insignia, she disputed that the workshop was co-organized by the Parliament.
Arena, on the other hand, apologised for failing to announce the meeting in accordance with Parliament's transparency standards for paid-for visits, despite the fact that her flights and hotel were sponsored by Qatar. "It was an error," she admitted, adding that her secretary was to blame for failing to declare any of her international excursions despite Arena's request. "I just asked her why this mission wasn't documented. She responds that she has no international missions on record. As a result, it's an error that I'm asking her to fix right away," Arena added.
The committee's amicable connection with Qatar did not begin in May of this year. In fact, it dates back to Panzeri's tenure as chair, when he struck a special deal with the Gulf state.
Panzeri, an Italian Socialist who served as an MEP for 15 years, oversaw the committee from 2017 to 2019, when Arena took over.
Panzeri travelled to Doha in 2018 with his then-assistant, Francesco Giorgi, who is also one of the four main suspects in the inquiry. While in Qatar, they met with government officials and, according to a member of the committee at the time, secured a special deal with Qatar's state-appointed human rights commission.
Although informal, the existence of this "memorandum of agreement" is supported by a Qatari official Instagram post and Qatari media reporting. "We can say that we secured a bilateral deal that benefits both parties," Panzeri was cited as saying in Arabic-language media. He was in Qatar in April 2018 to see the impact of Saudi Arabia's economic and diplomatic boycott on the tiny peninsular republic, which he allegedly described as catastrophic and intolerable.
According to a member who worked on the panel at the time, Panzeri notified colleagues on the committee about the transaction after he returned to Brussels.
There is no public document outlining the details of the arrangement. Arena, on the other hand, confirmed the existence of the agreement, claiming that she did not renew it when she took over the chairmanship of the committee from Panzeri in 2019. Arena went on to say that it was a private agreement between him and Qatar, not a pledge made in the name of the subcommittee on human rights. Since taking over, I have not signed a single memorandum of understanding."
There is no evidence that Panzeri's arrangement with Qatar's human rights committee violated any laws or parliamentary norms. "For the time being, my client is being represented as worse than anyone, while he is incarcerated and vulnerable," Panzeri's lawyer said. During his imprisonment, he is unable to respond to the ten pieces that are published each day. Justice will be served through the courts, not through the press."
However, after the agreement was reached in 2018, the Qataris appear to have gained from prominent exposure for their points of view. In the last four years, the committee has handed Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, the president of Qatar's human rights organisation when Panzeri signed the agreement, three platforms.
Al Marri, now Qatar's labour minister, most recently came before Arena's committee in November, just days before the World Cup began. He took advantage of the chance to claim that media stories on migrant deaths were part of a "smear campaign" against his country.
Partners who are reliable
Whatever Arena says, senior Qatari officials have clearly maintained their appreciation for what they see to be a beneficial relationship with her DROI committee. According to a Qatari media story on the workshop Arena and Figà-Talamanca attended on May 14, 2022, the NHRC Secretary General Sultan bin Hassan Al Jamali hailed the relationship between the two committees as a solid partnership.
There is no evidence that Arena committed any criminal offences or was a member of any purported conspiracy.
When Qatar was on the topic, Arena's normally tough stance on human rights appeared to soften. She voted against a resolution last year calling on Parliament to denounce Qatar's human rights performance as World Cup hosts. She stated that she done so to allow for a "more stringent" resolution condemning Qatar in 2023.
With the World Cup in full swing, Arena told MEPs in Strasbourg that European firms bear some of the guilt for human rights violations in Qatar. "We need to look at the duties that our corporations have," she stated. "Our enterprises have not always followed Qatari law's minimum criteria." While there have been deaths and reparations must be made, "Qatar has taken some steps forward," she said.
Arena refuted the charge that she is soft on Qatar. "My political positions regarding countries that do not respect human rights have never been ambiguous, and neither Qatar, Morocco, nor any other country has received preferential treatment," she added.
The wheels of justice are rolling slowly in the Belgian probe. Among the suspects, Kaili has disputed the charges, while Panzeri and Giorgi have declined to comment on them through their lawyers. According to a statement from No Peace Without Justice, Figà-Talamanca has temporarily stood down from his duties, and the NGO believes the investigation will exonerate him of any wrongdoing. Qatar has called the allegations levelled against it "discriminatory."
So, what is the next step for the Parliament's human rights subcommittee? Mychelle Rieu, the main civil servant in charge of DROI, had her office seized as part of the law enforcement investigation. "We are not aware of any direct involvement of a staff [member] in the present concerns," a Parliament spokesperson stated. No staff members have been arrested, and the office you describe has been shut in order to gather computer equipment relating to the Human Rights Subcommittee's work."
The European People's Party, a center-right party, has called for the committee's activities to be paused while investigations are conducted. "All facts and people implicated centre around the Human Rights Committee (DROI) and some Members and advisers working there," EPP group chair Manfred Weber said.
Weber called for Arena to be formally suspended as chair. “There are simply too many unanswered questions around the extent of the Socialists’ involvement in this corrupt network,” he said.
The panel will reconvene on January 25, with one of the vice-chairs presiding.
By fLEXI tEAM