Human rights lawyer admits hiring ‘Qatargate’ suspects

A prominent Turkish human rights lawyer has admitted to paying key suspects in the European Parliament corruption scandal for “ethical lobbying,” including resolutions condemning war crimes in Syria and Yemen.

London-based Hakan Camuz said two of his groups had “consulting deals” with the office of Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former MEP at the heart of the corruption scandal, for what he believed to be “parliamentary services”.

Camuz, who is not under investigation and accused of no wrongdoing, told the Financial Times the “services” agreed included facilitating meetings with other MPs, public events in Brussels, parliamentary inquiries and securing EU funds for his charities purposes.

The deals were made with Panzeri’s then-assistant Francesco Giorgi, who has admitted helping his boss use a network of companies to obfuscate payments from foreign governments, including Qatar and Morocco, as evidenced by the FT’s investigation show.

Camuz, a lawyer with ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, said he was “shocked and appalled” by the case and denied any knowledge of wrongdoing by Giorgi and Panzeri.

“The payments [from Camuz-related entities] were in return for petitions to condemn war crimes in Syria and protect refugees,” he said.

Giorgi also pledged to help introduce resolutions condemning war crimes in Yemen, Camuz said. “Unfortunately, compared to what we talked about, the results were very poor,” he added.

Italian prosecutors last week expanded the Belgium-led probe into corruption allegations by opening a separate money laundering probe. Prosecutors are looking into payments worth nearly €300,000 into Italian bank accounts held by Intesa Sanpaolo, managed by a consulting firm set up by Panzeri’s accountant, according to documents obtained by the FT.

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According to a transcript of Giorgi’s testimony to investigators, the Milan-based company Equality Consultancy Srl was allegedly set up by Panzeri and Giorgi’s associates in Italy as a vehicle for payments for their lobbying work. The company went into liquidation at the end of 2020 and finally shut down in June 2021.

According to payment invoices available to FT, two of the three companies that paid the consultancy a total of EUR 75,000 are connected to Camuz. In 2019, The Radiant Trust, a “grant agency” where Camuz is a trustee, was billed €50,000 by Equality Consultancy. Camuz’s London-based consultancy Phronesis, which rebranded to Stoke White in November 2021, was billed €25,000.

Another Istanbul-based company received two invoices from the Italian consultancy for a total of €200,000. The first bill, issued in late 2018, came when Panzeri was still a MEP and chaired the European Parliament’s human rights committee. There is no evidence that the Istanbul-based company is affiliated with Camuz.

Camuz said he was “devastated” by Giorgi’s allegations and said he had “been lied to”. He is considering taking legal action against Giorgi: “[He] Honey has led us to believe that he is the perfect person to work with.”

“We reached an agreement because we thought we were speaking to a legitimate body that would help us raise awareness of cases we are dealing with,” Camuz said. He and his partners have “no problem paying for such services” as they are part of legal campaigns against human rights abuses in Syria and Yemen.

Camuz said, “Francesco [Giorgi] approached me and suggested that he could help us run ethical lobbying services in Brussels at a low cost, which was very impressive as he was talking about helping victims of war crimes and victims of human rights abuses.”

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Giorgi is accused by the Belgian authorities of corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal organization. He is now free with an electronic tag after working with authorities.

His boss Panzeri, who has been jailed since December, reached a plea deal with Belgian authorities in February after he admitted receiving payments of up to €2.6 million from the governments of Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania between 2018 and 2022 to have.

The Milan-based company was founded by Panzeri’s accountant Monica Rossana Bellini in 2018, when Panzeri was still a member of the European Parliament, according to public records.

A lawyer for Bellini in Milan, who is awaiting a decision on her extradition to Belgium this week after being arrested in January and released on February 10, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Giorgi told Belgian investigators that in 2018 a Palestinian acting as a go-between for the Qataris advised him to call Camuz to help him set up a system to regulate payments for lobbying services, according to a transcript obtained by the FT present.

At the time, Giorgi was still working as an assistant to MEP Panzeri, who left the European Parliament the following year and then set up the campaign group at the heart of the corruption scandal, Fight Impunity.

“We made it look like the company [Equality Consultancy Srl] had offered Hakan’s services whose names I don’t remember,” Giorgi said, according to the transcript of his statement. Camuz rejected the allegation. Giorgi’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

“I would never knowingly do anything illegal or allow illegal activity in any of the companies I am involved with,” Camuz said.

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In his testimony, Giorgi said his role in the plan was to facilitate communication between Bellini, Panzeri’s lawyer daughter Silvia, and Camuz, since the Italian women did not speak English.

Camuz said he knew neither Bellini nor Panzeri’s daughter. “Giorgi said they were his employees and partners and I never questioned his own internal staffing details.”

Silvia Panzeri was briefly arrested in December, along with her mother Maria Dolores Colleoni. Belgian authorities dropped requests to be extradited to Brussels after Panzeri finalized his plea deal.