Belgian prosecutors said they have uncovered a major bribery scandal inside the European Parliament in an attempt to influence policy decisions made by the governing body. Photo by European Union/ EP/UPI | License Photo
Dec. 12 (UPI) -- Authorities in Belgium have charged four suspects, including a high-ranking member of the European Parliament, as part of an investigation into bribery -- allegedly by a Persian Gulf nation -- that attempted to influence EU policies.
Officials are calling the case one of the biggest corruption scandals to ever occur inside one of the main legislative bodies that govern the European Union.
Six suspects were arrested last Friday during raids that also netted a trove of evidence -- including computers, cellphones and $600,000 in cash at more than a dozen locations across Brussels.
While prosecutors have not officially identified the source of the scheme, Belgium's Le Soir newspaper reports that hidden payments originated in Qatar, where the World Cup soccer tournament is being held.
Eva Kaili, a vice president of the European Parliament and member of the Greek social democratic party, was among those taken into custody, along with former Italian parliamentary deputy Antonio Panzeri.
A Qatari official who spoke exclusively to The Guardian denied any wrongdoing, saying the country complies with international laws and that "any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed."
Two suspects arrested alongside Kaili and Panzeri have not been named publicly.
Each faces charges ranging from money laundering, corruption, and participation in organized crime, according to Belgian police.
Two other suspects arrested on Friday have since been let go.
Kaili and the others are accused of "paying large sums of money or offering large gifts to third parties with a significant political and/or strategic position within the European Parliament," court documents said.
The 44-year-old Kaili, a minister in the parliament for eight years, has been temporarily relieved of all her leadership and committee roles amid public calls for her to step down.
"We shouldn't even have to remove her from her vice president position," said Green party co-chair Terry Reintke. "This should be done by her proactively."
Part of Kaili's role in the 705-member parliament included overseeing policies that affect Middle East nations, including Qatar. She met with Qatar's labor minister, Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, shortly before the World Cup began last month, and has since touted the tournament as "a great tool for ... political transformation and reforms" in the country.
Panzeri, meanwhile, continues to maintain his current status as chairman of the human rights advocacy group Fight Impunity.
For months, investigators with the Federal Judicial Police suspected that a nation in the Persian Gulf had been using bribes "to influence the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament," according to a statement last week by the Federal Prosecutor's office in Belgium.
EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the allegations "very, very worrisome."
"We are facing some events, some facts, that certainly worries me as a former president of the European Parliament," Borrell said.
Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney described the situation as "very damaging" and emphasized that "we need to get to the bottom of it."
Parliamentary officials are typically granted the right to diplomatic immunity but can be charged if caught "in flagrante delicto" -- or in the act of committing a crime -- as in Kaili's case because she was arrested with "bags of cash" in her possession.