Top human rights prize targeted by Qatargate corruption suspects

BRUSSELS — The EU’s highest honor for human rights work was targeted by an allegedly corrupt network operating on behalf of foreign governments at the heart of the European Parliament, according to a cache of leaked documents.The annual Sakharov Prize was among the aspects of parliamentary work mentioned in a file where one of the key suspects logged activities that were allegedly part of the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the EU’s Parliament.

The award, which hands €50,000 to an individual or group that has made an outstanding contribution to freedom of thought, is the EU’s most prestigious honor in the field of human rights. Past winners include Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and the Ukrainian people.

On Tuesday, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola unveiled the 2023 Sakharov Prize, awarding it posthumously to Jina Mahsa Amini, the women’s rights activist in Iran whose murder sparked a wave of protests called the Women, Life, Freedom movement.

“I am very clear that this is not a prize for the sake of being a prize,” Metsola said. “We are here as the house of democracy. We pride ourselves on being a bastion for freedom of thought.”

Now, leaked documents from the Belgian police investigation, seen by POLITICO, cast doubt on the integrity of the prize nomination process in previous years. The files come from an inquiry into allegations of corruption known as Qatargate, in which Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania allegedly paid EU politicians and their associates in Brussels to attempt to manipulate democratic processes and debate.

“I’m deeply shocked that also the prize has been under this [alleged] undue influence,” said Heidi Hautala, a vice president of the European Parliament from Finland. “I had no clue, I don’t think anyone had.”

In a spreadsheet listing alleged influence activities, which Belgian police found on the computer of Qatargate suspect Francesco Giorgi, there are three mentions of the Sakharov Prize between 2020 and 2022.

Disturbing the process

The document states that in July 2020 a candidate was presented “to disturb” the process. Later that year, Giorgi’s spreadsheet suggests one potential prize nominee was blocked in order to satisfy the political agenda of Mauritania.

It’s not clear how far the entries in the spreadsheet reflect the reality of allegedly corrupt activities, or whether they were written simply to impress the Qatargate suspects’ alleged paymasters.

“It’s really shameful because first of all it’s a very credible, prestigious institution and we’ve always looked for candidates who are worth our support and who need defending. So it’s one of the worst things I’m now discovering on this undue influence that some of our colleagues had,” Hautala said. “The big challenge and the problem now is that the Parliament has kind of relied too much on the Belgian police to do the investigation, but we haven’t had any real internal inquiry into why and how all this happened.”

The European Parliament press service said that political groups put forward their candidates for the prize “in line with the established procedure.”

Belgian intelligence suspected non-EU countries were allegedly trying to influence the prize process. According to a declassified 2022 report by the Belgian secret service, the alleged corruption network moved to influence the Sakharov Prize in favor of Morocco.

The allegation was part of an original tip-off of “very reliable intelligence” Belgian spies received from an unnamed “trusted European intelligence service,” according to an annex to that report.

The spy report handed to police as part of the investigation said that one of Morocco’s main objectives was to influence the EU’s stance on Western Sahara, a disputed territory south of the country where Rabat has waged a decades-long fight against an armed independence movement led by the Polisario Front.

Giorgi’s lawyer Pierre Monville pointed out to POLITICO that the same spy report “states clearly that all the decisions are taken by [MEP and Qatargate suspect Andrea] Cozzolino and [former MEP and Qatargate suspect Pier Antonio] Panzeri. In line with his duties as parliamentary assistant of Cozzolino, my client had to follow the MEP’s instructions and the only point where he is mentioned by the [Belgian intelligence service] VSSE is a resolution.”

‘Not credible’

A person familiar with Giorgi’s legal defense, speaking on condition of anonymity, has previously argued that it was “not credible” to think of the spreadsheet as proof of the influence activities. Instead, the person said, the list was designed to “boost” Panzeri’s image to his clients.

Lawyers for Panzeri declined to comment. Lawyers for Cozzolino were approached for comment but did not respond.

Each year, Sakharov candidates — who can be proposed by political groups or individual MEPs — are assessed at a meeting of the foreign affairs and development committees with the subcommittee on human rights.

The subcommittee on human rights has been dragged into the Qatargate scandal as a key target for the network’s operations. Panzeri ran the subcommittee between 2017 and 2019, a period during which Belgian spies and police believe he was already on the Moroccan and Qatari payroll, according to documents seen by POLITICO.

The foreign affairs and development committees then whittle down the candidates to a shortlist of three before MEPs leading the political groups pick the winner behind closed doors.

Giorgi’s spreadsheet also mentioned the selection of a United Arab Emirates activist as a nominee for the Sakharov Prize in 2022. The UAE and Qatar are regional rivals; undermining or criticizing Qatar’s rivals was one of the strands of work Giorgi and Panzeri allegedly undertook.

A spokesperson for the Socialists and Democrats group said they do not comment on ongoing judicial investigations, but added that their own inquiry “did not bring to light any facts or cases that should have been brought to the attention of the investigation.”

Morocco, Mauritania and Qatar did not immediately reply to requests for comment. Qatar has rejected allegations it interfered in EU democracy. Morocco’s foreign affairs minister has denied the country’s involvement.