In a two separate interviews, Belgian federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw and former lead Qatargate investigator Michel Claise have unveiled the problematic nature of the ongoing inquiry to Belgian media.
In the first interview on September 4 with public broadcaster RTBF, Van Leeuw highlighted the “extraordinary character” of Qatargate.
“I have been federal prosecutor for almost 10 years. I have never seen so much pressure,” Van Leeuw said.
“There are leaks everywhere, there are foreign magistrates who contact you and sometimes want to interfere in the investigation themselves.”
He also referred to the recusal of the original investigating chief Claise. “They went after the previous investigating judge and his family. For me, it is disgusting, in the sense that this person clearly can’t defend himself since he was involved in the investigation.”
The interviewer asked Van Leeuw how it was possible that the link between the Belgian MEP Maria Arena, who some suspect to be involved in Qatargate, and Claise, was only brought up after the investigation had already been running for months (Arena denies any involvement).
He replied that Belgium was a small country and judges have families and an entourage, saying: “You can’t force them to live like hermits.”
Van Leeuw reiterated that nothing has been proven against Claise and he is still presumed innocent of any wrongdoing.
On September 6, RTBF then interviewed Claise who, while he could not comment on the ongoing Qatargate case, hinted that the truth would be “explosive” once investigators released all the information they had in their files.
“The truth is there. It can’t be found anywhere else, neither on television sets nor in government gazettes. And the truth will one day explode in the face of the manipulators who are simply trying to transform it,” he said.
Claise refused to say specifically why he withdrew from the Qatargate inquiry.
According to the RTBF, Claise’s apartment was searched by the police. He has also received anonymous death threats, which are being investigated, it was reported. Claise said this was not exceptional, pointing out another Belgian magistrate has had to a safe house.
“It’s extremely dangerous for democracy to reach a point where the judge needs to be taken down, when… we should be spending our time fighting criminal organisations,” he said.
“But I have never feared for my integrity,” Claise added. When asked: “Are these the criminals who want to take down judges or even entire states?” he responded somewhat enigmatically, saying: “That’s a good question. I hope we will have the answer one day.”
Leeuw had similarly spoken about the “torrent of information” regarding Qatargate, including on social media, and pointed to “suspicions that some [stories] are also funded by other countries”.
Qatar and Morocco have been linked to the Qatargate scandal, though they also deny involvement. Van Leeuw referred to the use of bots to influence public perception and warned: “We need to pay attention to this [those countries’] presumption of innocence.”
For Claise, the Qatargate case is not a unique occurrence. “You currently have a resurgence of the power of criminal organisations that operate, with the help of corruption and money laundering, in a number of highly lucrative areas,” he said, “such as drug trafficking, counterfeiting, arms trafficking, fraud, cybercrime, and waste trafficking. And when you mix it all together, you get enormous amounts of money. In the order of 1,000 billion per year.
“Good Lord, what are we waiting for at the political level to react and finally give us the means to combat this? We could say it’s David versus Goliath, but at least David had a sling,” he said.
Van Leeuw concluded his interview more optimistically.
“We are focusing on the issue of corruption. We should not jump to hasty conclusions; it’s not because we are intervening in this case that all parliamentarians and the entire political system are corrupt,” he said.
“In fact, if we manage to conduct this investigation, it’s because we still live in a democracy.”