Italy court OKs handover in EU Parliament corruption case
BRESCIA, Italy (AP) — An Italian court ruled Monday that a suspect in a major corruption scandal linked to the European Union’s parliament could be handed over to Belgium, where prosecutors are investigating a plan to peddle influence on behalf of Qatar and Morocco.
The court in the northern city of Brescia decided that Maria Dolores Colleoni could be taken to Belgium based on a European arrest warrant linking her to the scandal through her husband, former EU lawmaker Pier Antonio Panzeri.
The court in Brescia specified that any sentence would be served in Italy. It also said in its decision that an allowance for house arrest could eventually be made also in Belgium.
Prosecutor Giovanni Benelli made the decision public, without providing details, but Colleoni is not likely to head to Belgium soon. Her defense lawyers have said they are considering an appeal to Italy’s highest court.
Panzeri and three other people were charged Dec. 9 with corruption, participation in a criminal group and money laundering. Belgian prosecutors are investigating if they “were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence parliament’s decisions.”
The allegations that cash and gifts were exchanged for political influence are at the heart of one of the biggest scandals to hit the European Parliament. Lawmakers last week suspended work on Qatar-related files and vowed to toughen lobbying laws. Qatar vehemently denies its involvement.
Colleoni’s lawyer, Angelo de Riso, told reporters that she is “worried” about the case. Her defense team also expressed concern that she might be placed under house arrest while in Belgium awaiting trial.
Colleoni’s lawyers have five days to appeal the decision. Italy’s high court would then have 10 days to rule on whether she should be handed over. “My client is worried. If a person finds herself in this situation it is obviously worrying,” de Riso said.
According to two European arrest warrants issued by Belgian judge Michel Claise and seen Monday by The Associated Press, Panzeri is “suspected of intervening politically with members working at the European Parliament for the benefit of Qatar and Morocco, against payment.”
Colleoni, and their daughter, Silvia Panzeri, are suspected of being “fully aware” of his activities and helping to transport “gifts” from Morocco’s ambassador to Poland, Abderrahim Atmoun.
Prosecutors said wire taps uncovered the evidence of possible crimes. They were seeking Colleoni and her daughter’s transfer to Belgium. The two women face five years in prison if found guilty of participation in a criminal group, corruption and money laundering, according to the warrants.
Along with Panzeri, who leads the Fight Impunity campaign group, the four people already charged include a former EU parliament vice president and her Italian partner.
Their daughter’s case was scheduled to be heard separately on Tuesday. Both women have been held under house arrest near Brescia, though Colleoni was in court on Monday. Panzeri himself is detained in Belgium.
On Friday, a Milan judicial source confirmed to AP that 17,000 euros ($18,075) were seized during a search of the couple’s home, where Colleoni is under house arrest, in Calusco d’Adda in the Bergamo province northeast of Milan. Police also seized computers, cellphones, watches and documents.
The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
In statements to the court Monday, Colleoni denied the allegations presented in the arrest warrant, namely that she benefited from gifts from Qatari and Moroccan representatives, de Riso said. The issue of the 17,000 euros found in the couple’s house did not come up, he said
Before the hearing, de Riso said that handing Colleoni over to Belgian authorities would violate her human rights because an Italian court has already conceded house arrest and a transfer to Belgium would land her in jail pending charges and trial.
The former European Parliament vice president, Eva Kaili, remains in custody in Belgium awaiting a hearing on Thursday. Her term in office was terminated by EU lawmakers last week. Her partner, Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary advisor, is also in jail.
Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, secretary-general of the non-governmental organization No Peace Without Justice, was also charged. He has been released from prison but remains under surveillance and must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.
Corrects to say that Italy’s high court would have 10 days to decide on an appeal.
Cook reported from Brussels.