The EU’s ‘Qatargate’ investigation makes use of troubling legal precedent
After four months behind bars, Greek politician Eva Kaili has been released from jail pending a trial for the ‘Qatargate’ scandal that has shaken the European Parliament. Kaili was arrested in December following an investigation into the potential bribery of EU lawmakers by foreign governments, at the heart of which is an alleged scheme involving large sums of money paid by a Persian Gulf nation – widely believed to be Qatar – in exchange for Brussels policy influence.
Like in most political arenas, scandals are not a new concept for the European Parliament. However, this case is noteworthy for its potential prosecution methods, with the trial invoking the controversial use of a plea bargain deal, which, while a helpful conviction tool in certain situations, is certainly not a one-size fits all solution. Initially introduced to combat organized crime, it seems that the Parliament deems the plea bargain law equally well-suited for the police probe into allegations of “criminal organization, corruption, and money laundering.”
But as prosecutors navigate the use of flipped witness testimony in the Qatargate case, they’ll have to be careful to avoid problems that have surfaced with this practice in other countries.
Strike a deal
Much of the evidence in the case is likely to come from Antonio Panzeri, the former MEP suspected of being at the epicenter of the corruption scandal engulfing the European Parliament. In January, Panzeri struck a plea deal with Belgian authorities in which he admitted criminal participation in bribery. Panzeri is thought to be the ringleader of the network and has been charged with leading a criminal organization, money laundering, and corruption. Following his arrest, around €600,000 in cash was reportedly found at his home.
In exchange for the plea deal, Panzeri pledged to share “revealing” information to help the investigation, including details of the operations of the alleged corruption ring, financial agreements with other countries, and the identities of various people that he admits to having bribed. In return, Panzeri will receive a limited sentence, including a shortened prison term, a fine, and the confiscation of seized assets estimated to be worth around one million euros.
Panzeri’s plea deal falls under a law introduced in 2018 to combat organized crime. The so-called “regrets procedure” is modelled on to Italian “pentiti” process, which was introduced in the 1970s to help combat the mafia. Panzeri’s plea deal marks only the second time that the procedure has been used since its introduction, although Belgium is considering simplifying the law to encourage the increased use of plea deals to help fight organized crime, drug violence, and terrorism.
A controversial practice
Panzeri’s “regrets procedure” will be a key test of the effectiveness of the plea bargain process. Its main advantage lies in speed – taking the pressure off an overburdened justice system and facilitating convictions. But it is also a system that is easy to abuse, thus prosecutors should be aware of the pitfalls experienced in other countries.
In the fellow EU state of Slovakia, for instance, authorities have used plea bargains widely as part of their anti-corruption crackdown. Yet, this had led to significant concerns around the manner and frequency with which they are used. Slovakian prosecutors have been criticized for building a “witness factory,” with a handful of key witnesses testifying in a large number of anti-corruption cases. Prosecutors have also been accused of coercing witness testimony through arrest and intimidation, with a former senior official of Slovakia’s national crime agency alleging evidence tampering, blackmail and a striking level of violence.
Furthermore, a senior Slovakian legal scholar, Eduard Burda, has criticized the practices used by Slovakian authorities to elicit plea bargains, such as pretrial detention, saying the practice could be used to “eliminate inconvenient witnesses.” In many cases, “detention has been used to pressure the accused to cooperate, otherwise, he or she will be kept in detention and with the threat of a heavy sentence after conviction.” Burda also highlights the potential risk of the accused fabricating testimony, essentially telling the authorities what they want to hear in exchange for the best personal outcome of their cases.
Plea bargains are also particularly widely used in the United States. In fact, the practice is so widespread that, in 2012, the US Supreme Court noted that “plea bargaining . . . is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.” Plea bargains are a clear cost and time-saving measure, offering a reprieve for often overburdened criminal justice systems.
In the US, plea deals are most frequently applied to prosecute drug cases and the NCJRS reports that prosecuting and defending a drug case may cost over $70,000 per case. Beyond the money saved, they also offer a degree of certainty, in that defendants eliminate the prospect of a maximum sentence from standing trial with a judge and jury. However, there are also drawbacks to the system that prosecutors should be aware of, such as a certain lack of transparency, as well as the fact potentially innocent defendants can find themselves with a criminal record. Plea bargains are a tool to be used in the correct circumstances to lighten the load, but not to compromise democracy.
Wielding power responsibly
What is currently happening in Brussels seems to be a relatively straightforward case of corruption, something neither new nor that surprising. In the United States, plea deals have offered an effective albeit controversial solution to a lack of resources and manpower. However, in Slovakia, the frequent use of plea deals is tied to problematic allegations of intimidation, evidence tampering, and blackmail.
These country experiences show that plea deals, like all powerful mechanisms, are only as good and just as the people and the institutions wielding them. All mechanisms are subject to the circumstances in which they are used. The case of Eva Kaili is necessary and important. The investigation into the alleged bribery and corruption of EU lawmakers is necessary and important. But authorities should engage in the pursuit of justice, not the pursuit of convictions.
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