Leaks put Qatargate business at risk, Belgian justice minister warns – POLITICO
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Belgium’s Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne vows to leave no stone unturned in the corruption probe rocking the EU, but warns that repeated leaks of information from the probe are ‘dangerous’ to ensure the justice.
Belgium is on the front line of the EU’s biggest corruption probe for nearly a quarter of a century, amid allegations that Qatar and Morocco have bought influence in the European Parliament. Since December 10, the Belgian federal police have carried out a series of at least 20 searches of homes and offices in Brussels, seizing mobile phones, computers and more than 1.5 million euros in cash.
Four suspects were arrested on preliminary charges of “participation in a criminal organization, money laundering and corruption”. Among them, Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP ousted from the vice-presidency of the European Parliament after the outbreak of the case, who will remain in prison for at least another month.
Some lawyers for the suspects are now criticizing the Belgian investigation, with at least one lawyer writing to the court that “there was a huge procedural problem” due to leaks of key documents to the media. Newspapers have indeed collected juicy details about the discovery of cash stashes and confessions, which go well beyond official communications.
The problem for Belgian investigators is that the defense can cling to these leaks to blow up the proceedings in the case and argue that the right to professional secrecy and the right of access to sealed documents have been violated.
Respect the rule of law
Van Quickenborne, speaking in an interview with POLITICO, said the federal attorney’s office has opened a criminal investigation into the leaks in order to maintain confidence in the judicial process.
“The defense can use that of course, because the presumption of innocence is another tenet of our rule of law. It’s not up to the press to start convicting people in advance. That, of course, is sensitive – it’s dangerous,” he said, speaking from a safe house where he is spending Christmas due to threats against him by criminal groups such as drug gangs.
Belgium’s justice minister was careful not to release details of the investigation, as it could hamper the case. He did, however, confirm that the security of the Belgian state – in collaboration with several other European intelligence services – was at the heart of the investigation, adding that the investigation had started as early as March 2021. He underlined: “Our Belgian justice is working very well with the Italian justice system in this case. Three of the four suspects facing preliminary charges are Italian.
For Van Quickenborne, the Belgian investigation shows how investment in the Belgian judicial system, the Belgian intelligence services and the anti-corruption department within the Belgian police is now paying off. Welcoming the European institutions, NATO and other international institutions comes with responsibilities, underlined the Flemish politician. Belgium does not “give criminals a free pass”, he noted, and the ongoing investigation “also sends a signal to those who want to take the same path in the future”.
“Belgian State Security works not only in the fight against terrorism and extremism, but also in the fight against espionage and foreign interference,” he said. “We mainly target countries that seek to destabilize our society,” he continued, pointing to Russia, China and “rogue states” as countries clearly on the Belgian intelligence service’s radar.
He also referenced his own Christmas under guard. “The situation I find myself in now also proves that organized crime is trying to interfere — through intimidation and violence — in our society. We also asked state security to work very specifically on this, to look at the possible problem of corruption in our system […] examine the influence of decisions and decision-making bodies.
Regarding checks and balances, Belgium hopes to cooperate even more with the European Parliament in the future, he said, arguing that more can be done.
“It is up to the European Parliament to organize better control mechanisms with regard to the members of the European Parliament and also to organize more transparency in its decision-making process. Belgian justice would be happy to work even more closely with the European Parliament.