Human rights activist ‘in limbo’ over EU corruption probe

Andy Bounds and Laura Dubois in Brussels, Financial Times, 8 December 2023

Niccolo Figà-Talamanca says Belgian authorities have not found any evidence against him

A released suspect in the Qatargate investigation into corruption in the European parliament says he is “in limbo” and his human rights charity in danger of folding because of reputational damage from the probe.
Niccolo Figà-Talamanca, secretary-general of No Peace Without Justice, was arrested in December 2022, with Belgian authorities saying they suspected him of corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal group. He has maintained his innocence throughout and was let out of prison two months later.
He is one of six people named as suspects by the Belgian authorities after they found €1.5mn in cash at several addresses linked to current and former members of the European parliament. Belgian prosecutors believe Morocco and Qatar paid a group led by former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri to influence proceedings in the European parliament. Both governments deny wrongdoing.
Belgian secret service wiretaps and surveillance reports, seen by the FT, show they suspected Figà-Talamanca of being part of a corrupt network built by Panzeri.
Figà-Talamanca shared an office in Brussels with Fight Impunity, a charity established by Panzeri, who has since confessed to taking money. Figà-Talamanca also worked closely with Francesco Giorgi, Panzeri’s ex-assistant, who has made a partial confession.
But the Italian said his human rights work was legitimate and he simply influenced events by conventionally lobbying MEPs and staff.
“I am bewildered,” Figà-Talamanca told the FT in his Brussels office. “They found no cash, they froze my personal accounts and the charity accounts. They found nothing because there was nothing to find.”
“There were no facts or conduct that seemed to warrant those claims” of his involvement, he said.
Figà-Talamanca said he helped Panzeri establish Fight Impunity when he left parliament in 2019. He got to know Panzeri as head of the human rights subcommittee and worked closely together, as Panzeri had a high profile in the human rights world.
Figà-Talamanca set up the website for Panzeri’s charity and allowed it to use his office as headquarters in Brussels. The €150 a month in token rent was the only money he ever got from Panzeri, he said. He registered several other NGOs promoting human rights at the same address, to give them a foothold in Brussels since they could not do so in their own countries such as Syria and Saudi Arabia.
The secret services also noted his trip to Qatar ahead of the World Cup. Figà-Talamanca said he went to train members of its National Human Rights Committee, as he had done in other countries. His flight and hotel was paid and he was presented with a Cartier watch worth about €4,000 at the end of the course. He intended to raffle it for the charity but it remains in his house — ironically overlooked by the police.
A human-rights activist for almost 30 years who worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Figà-Talamanca said the case had damaged his organisation’s work worldwide.
“We have projects in Libya and Afghanistan that could run out of money. Some donors understandably suspended payments when I was arrested.”
The European Commission froze its funding to NPWJ for several months but in October the charity was restored to the EU’s transparency register, allowing it to resume work in the European parliament.
NPWJ recently launched an appeal to raise €300,000 by the end of the month to save the 30-year-old organisation. “The survival of a history of commitment and objectives achieved depends on it,” wrote Tara O’Grady, the president.
Figà-Talamanca believes he was targeted by a non-European government angered by his work, which involves bringing those who commit human rights abuses to trial.
His second home in Italy remains sealed after investigators suspected it was bought with the proceeds of corruption. He says he obtained a bank loan to purchase it. “I am in limbo. I am a suspect and I will continue to be a suspect until the mythical moment of the end of the investigation where the prosecutor will ask for some people to be remanded for trial,” he said.
The suspects in the case, including Greek MEP Eva Kaili, have sought a judicial review into Belgian authorities’ investigative methods, delaying any potential trial until at least mid-2024.
Figà-Talamanca said he could not comment in detail on the allegations put to him because of judicial secrecy. But he said that when he was questioned, it seemed like investigators had “no clue” about his alleged involvement. “The questions also seemed to indicate that they have no clue whatsoever of how European institutions work,” he added.
He said that he had been repeatedly been asked by journalists why he was writing speeches for MEPs.
“That’s what we do,” he said. “We give them intelligent things to say that make them look good and we get useful points made on human rights issues.”
Panzeri’s lawyer and the Belgian federal police declined to comment.