BRUSSELS — The authorities in Belgium have started a sweeping operation to detain and question five people including former and current members and employees of the European Parliament as part of an inquiry into suspected bribes by Qatar, officials in Brussels say.
The police operation, which began on Friday and was still underway on Saturday, is focused on what could be the biggest scandal in the history of the European Parliament. Among those taken in for questioning, according to a Belgian official involved with the investigation, was Eva Kaili of Greece, one of the Parliament’s vice presidents.
“For several months, investigators of the Federal Judicial Police have suspected a Gulf country to influence the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament,” the Belgian prosecutor’s office said in its news release. “This is done so by paying large sums of money or offering large gifts to third parties with a significant political and/or strategic position within the European Parliament.”
The Belgian police said in a detailed statement on Friday that their raids in 16 locations — including private residences across the capital, Brussels — had yielded a suitcase with 600,000 euros in cash ($633,000). They also said they had seized computers and cellphones.
Although the police did not name the country linked to the inquiry in their news release, the Belgian official directly involved with the investigation and a European lawmaker who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the news media said that it was Qatar. The Belgian official spoke on the condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to divulge further details publicly.
He said that the inquiry had been underway for at least four months, and that the possible crimes occurred during that period and potentially earlier.
The investigation comes as Qatar is hosting the men’s soccer World Cup amid heightened scrutiny.
The scandal is likely to embarrass the Qatari government, which has faced criticism over the exploitation of migrant workers who helped build the tournament’s infrastructure. In addition, the authoritarian country’s criminalization of homosexuality has become a flash point between some Western teams and fans and FIFA, the governing body for global soccer. And corruption was also already a focus.
A Qatari government official said on Saturday that the government was not aware of any details of a European investigation. The official said that any claims of misconduct by Qatar were gravely misinformed, and that the state operated in full compliance with international laws and regulations.
The Belgian prosecutors questioning the five detainees have 48 hours, until Sunday afternoon, to charge them. The European Parliament, together with the other key institutions of the 27-nation bloc, is based in Brussels, Belgium’s capital.
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The Belgian official said those detained were Ms. Kaili; her life partner, Francesco Giorgi, who works as an aide to another European lawmaker; Luca Visentini, the recently elected chief of the global workers’ union, the International Trade Union Confederation; and Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former member of the European Parliament. The identity of the fifth person in custody was not known.
Ms. Kaili has been a prominent E.U. lawmaker since 2014, taking on high-profile causes including cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence. Hours after the news of her detention became public, her party, Greece’s center-left PASOK, expelled her from its ranks; the centrist Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament suspended her.
“We are appalled by the allegations of corruption in the European institutions,” said Jan Bernas, the parliamentary group’s spokesman. “The S&D Group has zero tolerance for corruption. We are the first to support a thorough investigation and full disclosure.”
Given the seriousness of the accusations, he said the group was seeking the suspension of any European Parliament work on files and plenary votes relating to Gulf nations, especially ones involving visas and visits.
Mr. Panzeri, the former member of Parliament also detained, had once been a member of the Socialists and Democrats grouping. The office at his nongovernmental organization, Fight Impunity, did not respond to a request for comment.
The International Trade Union Confederation, where Mr. Visentini was chief, declined to comment on the case.
Co-workers of Mr. Giorgi at the European Parliament as well as his boss, Andrea Cozzolino, an Italian member of Parliament, did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Ms. Kaili’s parliamentary office on the building’s 10th floor in Brussels, and Mr. Giorgi’s office on the 15th floor, were both sealed by the Belgian police, according to Parliament employees who saw the police cordons in person and asked not to be named because they were not authorized to comment.
A spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor did not have the names of any lawyers for those being questioned. The New York Times called and messaged Ms. Kaili’s number several times, but it was switched off. In a Facebook message to The Times about the inquiry, Ms. Kaili’s sister Mantalena Kaili said there was “no news yet from our side.”
The European Parliament is one of the three key institutions of the European Union, although it is widely considered the least powerful. Its 705 members, elected in their home countries and serving five-year terms, do not initiate legislation, but their approval is usually required to pass it. They can also censure the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, and play an often high-profile role in scrutinizing the bloc’s policies.
Despite their limited institutional power, European lawmakers are often approached by lobbyists from nations, industries and interest groups seeking to influence public opinion on their causes, and to gain allies in the room where important policies are debated.
Ms. Kaili was a vocal supporter of Qatar in the months leading up to the World Cup, and recently visited the country on a formal trip.
“Today, the World Cup in Qatar is proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world,” Ms. Kaili said in a speech before the European Parliament last month. “I alone said that Qatar is a front-runner in labor rights,” she said, including the abolition of kafala, a system that allowed employers to hold their workers’ passports and therefore effectively control their ability to leave the country or change jobs.
“Still, some here are calling to discriminate them,” Ms. Kaili said of Europe’s approach to Qatar. “They bully them, and they accuse everyone that talks to them or engages of corruption.”
Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Niki Kitsantonis from Athens, and Jason Horowitz from Rome.