Qatargate judge Michel Claise steps down

Michel Claise, the Belgian judge leading the European Parliament corruption probe, announced Monday he will step down from the ongoing corruption investigation known as Qatargate amid allegations of a conflict of interest, the Belgian prosecutor’s office confirmed Monday, according to Politico.

“As a precautionary measure and to allow justice to pursue its work in serenity and maintain the necessary separation between private and family life and professional responsibilities, the investigating judge Michel Claise has informed us that he has decided this evening to step down from the case,” reads a statement. 

The prosecutor’s office added the move comes in “the absence of any real evidence to cast doubt on the probity of any of the parties involved and the substantial work he and his investigators have accomplished in this case.”

Claise’s resignation comes after a request for recusal filed Monday by Maxim Töller, the Liège-based lawyer for MEP Marc Tarabella, a primary suspect in the sprawling case, Töller told Politico.

Tarabella, who has consistently claimed his innocence and had previously tried (and failed) to oust Claise from the case, was recently released from wearing an electronic bracelet and allowed to leave house arrest under certain conditions. 

Töller alleged Claise has been biased from the start due to ties with MEP Maria Arena. Though Arena has been neither questioned nor charged by prosecutors, she is mentioned in an arrest warrant as being part of a group of MEPs who would allegedly do Panzeri’s bidding.

Arena’s son, Ugo Lemaire, and Michel Claise’s son, Nicolas Claise, are co-owners of the same company and have known each other for many years, according to public documents from the company and social media posts. 

Maria Arena was a close associate of chief suspect Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former MEP who admitted guilt in a plea deal. Arena described their ties as “professional friendship,” and Panzeri has insisted on her innocence. She has always said she’s innocent and not involved. 

Panzeri accused Tarabella of having taken certain positions in the European Parliament to favor a third country in exchange for an estimated €120,000 to €140,000 in cash. Other suspects in the Qatargate probe are alleged to have accepted cash from Qatar and Morocco for favorable positions in Parliament.

“We can now hope for an investigation that examines inculpatory and exculpatory evidence and will allow Panzeri’s assertions to be called into question,” Tarabella’s lawyer told Politico.

Last Wednesday night, Claise was spotted by Politico in jovial spirits drinking wine at midnight by Strasbourg’s cathedral with two colleagues. He said the investigation was in good health and alluded to the coming summer solstice, saying that more light would be shed on the case in due time.

He claimed to have been in Strasbourg in order to teach a course on law to university students and that it was merely a coincidence that he was present while the European Parliament was in session. A senior EU official, who was granted anonymity since he is not authorized to speak to the media, told Politico he was not at the Parliament in Strasbourg last week.

Michel Claise and Maria Arena had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Eric Van Duyse, a spokesperson for the Belgian prosecutor’s office, confirmed to Politico that investigative judge Aurélie Dejaiffe, who was already involved in the case, will take over the lead. 

Claise’s resignation could delay or even threaten the case should a conflict of interest be established.