How Eva met Francesco: The golden couple at the heart of Europe’s Qatargate scandal

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BRUSSELS — Eva Kaili and Francesco Giorgi had left nothing to chance.

The duo that would later become the most famous — many would say infamous — couple in the European Union capital had been gearing up for this moment for years.

As Qatar prepared to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, they were among the Gulf state’s fiercest advocates in Brussels, defending its record on human rights and fending off criticism of its treatment of migrant workers.

And now, less than a week before the high-profile soccer tournament was to kick off, it was all coming to a head. At a crucial hearing in the European Parliament, Qatar’s Labor Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri — aka “the Doctor” — would come in person to plead his case before the chamber’s human rights committee.

In the preceding days, Kaili, a Greek lawmaker who was then a vice president of the European Parliament, had ramped up her efforts. According to public records, interviews and a cache of investigative files seen by POLITICO, she had flown back and forth to Doha and spent hours pleading and cajoling fellow lawmakers to give Qatar a clean bill of health on human rights.

At several points, she turned to her partner, Giorgi, for advice. “Who else should I talk to?” she texted him on November 14, according to transcriptions of her WhatsApp messages included in the police investigation files.

While Kaili worked the phones, Giorgi, an Italian parliamentary assistant, had been putting the finishing touches to the Qatari minister’s speech. In police surveillance photographs taken three days before the hearing, he can be seen poring over the text with his longtime boss, Pier Antonio Panzeri — a former EU lawmaker who Belgian prosecutors would later describe as the mastermind of a sweeping cash-for-influence operation known as “Qatargate.”

Per their usual working method, the Italian-speaking Panzeri wrote the speech in his native language and then passed it on to Giorgi for translation. With one day to go, Giorgi and Kaili huddled with Al Marri in his suite at the 5-star Steigenberger Wiltcher’s Hotel, according to hotel video recordings obtained by the police.

Finally, it was the big day. As the minister took to the stage on November 14, 2022, Kaili nervously texted her partner again to ask if she should show up in person.

“Don’t come,” Giorgi replied via WhatsApp. “I’m afraid you will be exposed. To enter with the baby, everyone will notice u.”

She replied: “I don’t want to be exposed.”

So she stayed with the couple’s child, while the rest of the key suspects in what would become the Qatargate scandal crowded into the auditorium where Al Marri — the man police would later describe as the leader in his country’s efforts to corrupt the European Parliament — was taking to the stage.

At a hearing, Ali bin Samikh Al Marri laid out the case for Qatar’s labor reforms and why his country deserved the world’s respect despite reports alleging abuse of migrant laborers | Pierre Albouy/EFE via EPA

If everything went well and Al Marri came out satisfied with their efforts over many months of lobbying, the Italian former lawmaker stood to make good on a longstanding business relationship he and Giorgi would later tell police was worth more than €4 million.

And if it failed? Nobody wanted to know.

As Al Marri spoke, laying out the case for Qatar’s labor reforms and why his country deserved the world’s respect despite reports alleging abuse of migrant laborers, Kaili and her partner of five years WhatsApped back and forth, as one might do while watching a major sporting event from two different locations.

“So Arabic and speaks without reading,” Giorgi texted.

A few minutes later, Kaili commented: “He’s losing it a bit.”

As other lawmakers took to the floor following Al Marri’s speech, she bristled at criticism of Qatar. 

“Who is this fat,” she texted her partner, referring to one lawmaker, adding an adjective which to her was an insult: “Communist.”

As Al Marri wrapped up, the Greek lawmaker asked: “Why he didn’t follow the speech.”

Finally, it was over. 

Giorgi texted Kaili: “Ela, we did everything we could.”

For the watch party, a major milestone had been crossed. A senior Qatari representative had been given a chance to address criticism in what could have been a fiercely critical environment. 

So far, so good. Except what they didn’t know was that Giorgi and Panzeri had been under surveillance by Belgian secret services for months, suspected of taking part in a sweeping cash-for-influence scheme under which Qatar paid to obtain specific legislative outcomes. Their communications, including with Kaili and other suspects, would be scooped up as part of the wiretaps and the subsequent investigations. 

Eva Kaili maintains her defense of Qatar was part of her job as a representative of the European Union | Julien Warnand/EFE via EPA

Kaili denies any wrongdoing in a scheme in which police say Panzeri and others accepted money from Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for pushing their interests in the European Parliament. Kaili maintains her defense of Qatar was part of her job as a representative of the European Union and that the investigation into her actions breached the parliamentary immunity enjoyed by sitting MEPs. 

There is no other evidence in the hundreds of pages of wiretapping by the secret services that indicates Kaili directly received money from Qatar or other countries. Giorgi has provided details of the operation to police, but his lawyer has argued his statements were extracted under duress. 

And yet, as the pro-Qatar operation turned to its next challenges, Belgian investigators who had taken over the probe from the secret service were closing in.

On the morning of December 9, the trap slammed shut. Kaili, Giorgi, Panzeri and a couple of other suspects were arrested and thrown into jail on charges of corruption, money laundering and participating in a “criminal conspiracy.” Two other members of the European Parliament, Marc Tarabella and Andrea Cozzolino, would also be arrested and charged.

Police published photographs of bags stuffed full of hundreds of thousands of euros which they had recovered in Panzeri’s flat, at Kaili and Giorgi’s home and in a suitcase wheeled by Kaili’s father — instantly turning their probe into a page one news story for outlets around the Continent.

* * *

The shock arrests of one of the highest-ranking members of the European Parliament, her boyfriend and their alleged accomplices smashed open a window onto a murky world of lobbying for foreign governments in the heart of EU democracy.

The Brussels Bubble, as the EU’s policymaking apparatus is known, likes to think of itself as a global paragon of democracy, transparency and respect for human rights. There’s another side of the EU capital, however — an ecosystem of hidden connections and low-grade corruption, of back-scratching politicians and the filter feeders that gravitate toward centers of political power and public largesse. 

While the Qatargate case has yet to go to court and several of the key players, including Kaili, insist they are innocent of the charges, the scandal has already led to reforms. The European Parliament has introduced changes bolstering transparency, and the creation of an ethics body establishing common standards for EU civil servants is being negotiated.

The story of Qatargate is also still being written. And nobody better captures the human element of this complex affair — and the cozy, transactional world in which it took place — than Kaili and Giorgi. 

Start with Kaili: A political celebrity in her native Greece, where she’d gained fame as a TV presenter, at the time of her arrest she was one of Brussels’ most prominent politicians, widely believed to be bound for higher office either within the EU system or back home. She’d recently had her first child with Giorgi, an ambitious parliamentary assistant nine years her junior whose wavy blond hair and dimpled smile were well-known in the European Parliament.

Together, they formed a formidable power couple on the Brussels circuit — as well as a shining example of what Europeans hailing from their respective Mediterranean homelands can achieve in the EU system if they play their cards right.

And yet, in an instant, it was all over. Both of them were in jail, their reputations in tatters, their infant child outside and in the care of family members. In the space of a single morning, the EU capital’s golden couple had become the most notorious duo in town.

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Pier Antonio Panzeri hired Francesco Giorgi’s as an intern in 2009 | European Union

To understand what propelled this sudden plunge, it helps to dial back the clock to the earliest days of their relationship, five years before anyone heard of the so-called Qatargate scandal.

It was a Monday in early 2017. Giorgi was at work doing a familiar task — interpreting for his language-challenged boss, Antonio Panzeri, at a conference in Parliament.

The two men went back a long way. Panzeri had been Giorgi’s boss for nearly a decade already, having hired him first as an intern in 2009 and then as a full-blown accredited assistant. The elder Italian was a well-known politician in Parliament — a shrewd operator on the left wing of Italy’s Partito Democratico, a trade union veteran from Milan who turned to international affairs late in his 15-year parliamentary career.

But he was a man of his generation — only really comfortable speaking in Italian and, according to Giorgi, unable to switch on a computer.

For all of those things, there was Giorgi. Then aged around 30, he was in a good place professionally and socially. Like thousands of Italians who flock to Brussels every year, he looked to the EU system as a land of opportunity. And the system had served him well. Paid handsomely, he had a front-row seat on his boss’s dealings, which included travel to places like Rabat, Morocco and Doha, Qatar, as well as more mundane tasks.

But nearly ten years in, Giorgi was ready for change. And little did he know, the embodiment of that change was about to walk in the door.

While Kaili and Giorgi had seen each other in the halls of the European Parliament a few times since her election in 2014, according to her interviews with Belgian police, that Monday meeting in Brussels would stick out for them as their first proper encounter.

The mutual interest must have been powerful because it’s hard to overstate the disparity, in terms of age and political and financial power, that separated Giorgi from Kaili as she walked in, heading a NATO delegation.

To put it bluntly, Giorgi was a cog in the machine with no political weight. By contrast, Kaili was already a well-established politician in Brussels and very well plugged-in with Greece’s political and business elite. She had barreled her way up through the ranks of the Greek socialist party, PASOK, while still in her twenties, before making the jump to the European Parliament in 2014. In her office, Kaili employed no fewer than three Giorgis.

And yet the young Italian, who’d grown up sailing in the Mediterranean and skiing in the French Alps, decided to try his luck. According to Kaili’s testimony to police, after this initial encounter, the two of them dined “two or three times.” Giorgi spent the better part of a year trying to woo the Greek lawmaker, but it was tough going as she claimed to be far too busy with her work to carve out time for a serious relationship.

It was only after about a year, she said, that things became “serious.” Marking the transition from casual dating to partnership, they made a shared commitment: co-investing in an apartment located just behind their shared place of work, the European Parliament. It was Christmas Eve, 2019, according to Giorgi’s statements to police. 

After Kaili returned to Greece in 2019 to campaign for reelection, Giorgi joined her a few months later. In February 2021, they were joined by a baby girl.

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Eva Kaili returned to Greece in 2019 to campaign for reelection | Menelaos Myrillas/SOOC/AFP via Getty Images

But that’s where their story departs from the norm. Most wage-earning couples don’t live surrounded by stacks of cash. Most EU Bubble couples don’t possess a “go bag” brimming with bank notes, or end up as suspects in sprawling corruption probes.

Part of the explanation can be found in their link to Panzeri, the Svengali-like third wheel in their relationship, whom Giorgi described initially as a “father figure” and whom Kaili later called a manipulator taking advantage of her boyfriend’s “idealistic” personality.

Indeed, in his interviews with Belgian investigators, Giorgi traces back the “original sin” of his involvement in Qatargate to a deal he agreed to with Panzeri shortly after becoming his employee in 2009. Under that arrangement, Giorgi allegedly agreed to pay Panzeri back €1,500 per month of his wages in exchange for the privilege of working for him, a relatively common scheme in the Parliament. (As a point of comparison, when the scandal broke, Giorgi was earning some €6,600 per month as an assistant to a different MEP).

The deal was to prove an introduction to a transactional world in which Panzeri — as a lawmaker and later, as the head of Fight Impunity, a non-governmental organization he launched after leaving Parliament — had no trouble accepting large sums of cash from foreign governments in exchange for services rendered.

From 2018, Giorgi and Panzeri dove headlong into a partnership allegedly based on lobbying for Qatar in exchange for big cash payments. According to Giorgi’s statements to police, they agreed on a long-term lobbying agreement worth an estimated €4.5 million and to be split 60/40, with the larger share going to Panzeri.

Once arrested, Giorgi and Panzeri would butt heads about the precise role of each in the lobbying arrangement. But one of the younger Italian’s key tasks was to pick up cash payments at various places around Brussels, often from total strangers. Once he picked up €300,000 in cash near the Royal Palace from a person driving a black Audi with Dutch license plates. Another time, the drop-off happened in a parking lot near the canal. 

In total, there were around ten such drop-offs, two or three per year, with the smallest amount around €50,000.

The alleged quid pro quo was that Giorgi and Panzeri would deliver specific parliamentary and public relations outcomes to their clients, which in addition to Qatar included Morocco and Mauritania. The ever-meticulous Giorgi kept a spreadsheet on his computer on which he documented hundreds of influence activities that the network allegedly carried out between 2018 and 2022.

It records more than 300 pieces of work, using a network of aides inside parliament whom they called their “soldiers,” according to the files.

Even as they pressed their clients’ interests, they were also trying to exploit their lack of familiarity with the workings of the Bubble, reporting certain actions that, according to Giorgi, they actually had no influence over.

The scheme, Giorgi later told police, “relied on the ignorance of how parliament works” — on the part of the duo’s clients.

Panzeri, through his lawyer, declined to comment for this article.

* * *

As Giorgi dug deeper into his partnership with Panzeri, his romance with Kaili was expanding into a business partnership.

While each already had other properties — including Kaili’s two apartments in Athens (which she said were worth a combined €400,000) and one in Brussels (estimated by Kaili at €160,000) and one belonging to Giorgi purchased for €145,000 in Brussels — they were soon eyeing other purchases.

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Eva Kaili and Francesco Giorgi purchased a flat near the European Parliament for €375,000 in 2019 | Leon Neal/Getty Images

After the Christmas Eve purchase of their flat near the Parliament for €375,000 in 2019, they purchased a plot of land on the Greek island of Paros for €300,000 in 2021 which they planned to develop into four holiday villas and at least one swimming pool, according to files recovered from Giorgi’s computer in a folder called “Business”. Then, in 2022, came the purchase of their second apartment, a penthouse right next to the Parliament, worth €650,000, according to Giorgi’s statements to police. 

All told, the couple’s joint real estate purchases amounted to more than €1.3 million over a period of two years.

In between these purchases, there were other expenses: sailing holidays, a Land Rover bought for €56,000 and a fully refurbished kitchen. On several occasions, the couple sought to minimize their outlay by exploiting their insiders’ knowledge of the system.

According to documents seized at Giorgi’s home, a Qatari diplomat helped him get a discount on the Land Rover by taking advantage of special conditions for diplomatic staff, reducing the sticker price by about €10,000.

By any normal standards, Kaili and Giorgi were already wealthy based on their income.

In addition to taking home €6,600 per month as a parliamentary assistant, Giorgi received €1,000 in social benefits for their daughter, €1,800 per month from the rental to the Mauritanian ambassador and — since the envoy never occupied the flat — €1,200 in cash from two women to whom he sublet the flat for a few months. 

As for Kaili, she earned about €10,000 before taxes plus about €900 in monthly rent from a flat she owned in Brussels.

All told, the couple was pulling in well over €20,000 per month, an eye-watering amount in a country where the median monthly wage is €3,507 before taxes.

Yet even these substantial monthly earnings seem not to have covered the mounting costs related to their real estate investments or make the couple feel fully secure. Despite the fact her partner was pulling in more than three times the Belgian median wage, Kaili would tell police during the first interview after her arrest: “I know that Francesco doesn’t have a lot of money because he isn’t able to partake in all of our expenses.”

What motivated this drive for accumulation? According to a person who knew Kaili professionally and asked not to be named due to fear of retaliation, the answer lies partly in her background growing up without much money in Thessaloniki, Greece. “It feels like she grew up with a lot of deprivations,” the person said. “She wanted to feel that even if she quits politics, she will have a comfortable life.”

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According to a person who knew Kaili professionally, the answer to her drive for accumulation lies partly in her background growing up without much money in Thessaloniki | Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP via Getty Images

As a result, Kaili tended to be very focused on financial opportunities. “She loved people with power and money. She was always, ‘You know this event is going to have businessmen,” the person added. “And she always liked to have houses and property stuff, but she was never into luxury stuff.”

As for Giorgi, the son of a school director and import-export entrepreneur, he grew up in more comfortable circumstances in a town near Milan.

But as the junior partner in his relationship with Kaili, he may have struggled to keep up financially to a partner who earned more than he did and kept company with wealthy entrepreneurs and crypto-bros. 

“I have never loved luxury. I don’t know why I lost my way,” he told police during his first interview shortly after his arrest. 

* * *

In interviews with police, Giorgi admitted to being part of a scheme, with Panzeri, to take hundreds of thousands of euros in cash from foreign governments — admissions his lawyer now says he made under pressure from police who he says threatened to take away his daughter.

But Kaili always maintained that she had nothing to do with the setup. Not only does she claim ignorance about the ultimate source of much of the money found in her apartment, and on her father; she also told police that she had nothing to do with Panzeri and Giorgi’s deals with foreign governments — an argument that her partner has always backed up, telling police early on that she had nothing to do with the scheme.

Panzeri, however, says the opposite. He alleges that in the spring of 2019, Kaili was part of a pact struck with Qatar to fund several MEPs’ election campaigns to the tune of €250,000 each. Giorgi and Panzeri both attest that a deal like this took place — but disagree on whether Kaili was involved. 

In any case, having forged a reputation as a tech policymaker, Kaili’s work as a lawmaker veered suddenly toward the Middle East and the world of human rights, particularly in the Gulf, from 2017 onwards, the year she met Giorgi. She traveled to Qatar for the first time later that year, at the invitation of another lawmaker, and made trips — some with Giorgi, some without — in 2020 and 2022.

In early 2022, just after she became a Parliament vice president, she asked the chamber’s president, Roberta Metsola, to give her files related to the Middle East and human rights. “I hope I didn’t make it difficult for you,” Kaili WhatsApped Metsola. “You gave me everything I love the most!” She was later designated as the vice president who would replace Metsola in her absence on issues related to the Middle East.

In the days and weeks leading up to the kickoff of the World Cup, Kaili and Giorgi’s work increasingly overlapped on two main files: opposition to a resolution critical of Qatar and a deal Doha was seeking with the EU that would allow its citizens to travel to the bloc without a visa.

On November 12, two days before Qatar’s labor minister would appear before the European Parliament, she reached out to Metsola, offering her tickets to the tournament in Doha.

“My dear President!” she wrote to Metsola. “Hope you are well. I have to pass you an invitation for the World Cup, you [sic] or your husband and boys might be interested,” she wrote on WhatsApp. 

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Eva Kaili reached out to European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, offering her tickets to the World Cup in Doha | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It’s not clear what, if anything, Kaili asked from Metsola in exchange for the tickets. Throughout her dealings with lawmakers over Qatar, the Greek lawmaker would occasionally delete the messages she had sent. This includes her side of the rest of the conversation with Metsola — except for one text: “The rest I disagree too but I believe they will digest if we get the visa,” she wrote.

(A spokesperson for the Parliament president said Metsola never accepted any tickets to the World Cup and did not read Kaili’s messages before they were deleted.)

With the World Cup having started, the next big challenge awaiting Kaili, Giorgi and Panzeri was a plenary session in Strasbourg where rival politicians aimed to criticize Qatar’s human rights record weeks before the World Cup by putting a resolution on the agenda. Once again, they ramped up their lobbying.

So noticeable was the pro-Qatari line being pushed by Kaili and others affiliated with Panzeri  that it started raising eyebrows among their colleagues.

“There were some very strange opinions being voiced on how we should not criticize Qatar, and we should rather recognize the reforms they were making and so on,” remembered Niels Fuglsang, a Danish MEP from the same S&D group. “I thought it was obvious that our group should criticize this, we are social democrats, we care about workers’ rights and migrants’ rights.”

For example, on November 21, Kaili pressed José Ramón Bauzá Díaz, a Spanish centrist MEP who ran the Qatari-EU friendship group, over his political faction’s stance on the resolution, poised to slam Qatar’s human rights track record. 

“So, your group wants to vote in favor of a resolution Against Qatar World Cup,” she WhatsApped to him. He said: “It is crazy.” She went on to press him to take a pro-Qatari stance and reject the resolution. 

Later that day, in a now-infamous video, Kaili took to the stage during Parliament’s plenary session and sung the praises of Qatar. “I alone said that Qatar is a frontrunner in labor rights,” she said. “Still, some here are calling to discriminate them. They bully them and they accuse everyone that talks to them, or engages, of corruption. But still, they take their gas.”

With a crunch vote on the resolution’s final wording still to take place on November 24, Kaili was still going strong, texting with Abdulaziz Ahmed Al Malki, the Gulf country’s envoy to the European Union and NATO.

During this exchange, the Qatari gave Kaili direct instructions to take action on legislation of interest to Qatar.

“Hi Iva,” wrote the Qatari in a WhatsApp message on November 24. “My dear my ministry doesn’t want paragraph A about FIFA & Qatar. Please do your best to remove it via voting before 12 noon or during the voting please.”

Kaili deleted her responses.

Eva Kaili has challenged the lifting of her immunity at the European Court of Justice | Nicolas Bouvy/EPA via EFE

But the recipient appeared to be pleased with what she texted, writing back a few hours later: “Thanks excellency” with a hands-clasped-in-prayer emoji.

The Qatar embassy in Brussels and the spokesperson’s office in Doha did not respond to requests for comment.

* * *

Plainclothes Belgian police arrested Giorgi at 10:42 a.m. on December 9 at his home in Brussels. Earlier, they had picked up Panzeri. According to her statements to police, Kaili did not immediately know what had happened and originally thought Giorgi was involved in a car accident. She was told by police that her partner had been arrested. 

Having tried and failed to get through by phone to Panzeri and his friends, Kaili set about trying to get rid of the stacks of cash in her apartment.

She headed to the safe that Giorgi had installed in their apartment and started to shovel stacks of bills into a travel bag. On top of them, she placed baby bottles for her child as well as a mobile phone and a laptop computer. Then she told her father, a civil engineer and sometime political operator who was visiting the family in Brussels, to take the bag and go to a hotel, where her father’s partner and Kaili’s baby were waiting. “I didn’t leave him the choice,” she later told police. “I just said, ‘Take this and go.’” 

A few hours later, police followed Kaili’s father as he walked to the Sofitel, a short distance from their flat. According to a person familiar with the details of the investigation, bank notes were fluttering out of the bag as he went. Cops stopped Kaili’s father inside the hotel, seized the suitcase and detained him. Then it was Kaili’s turn. In the early afternoon, police detained her and took her to the Prison de Saint Gilles. 

The next day, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) announced it was investigating Kaili and another Greek member of Parliament in a probe looking at whether she took kickbacks from her assistant’s salaries as well as cuts of their reimbursements for “fake” work trips. Kaili has challenged the lifting of her immunity in this case at the European Court of Justice.

As the one-year anniversary of her spectacular downfall has approached, Kaili and her lawyers have done their best to turn the tables on the prosecutors, casting doubt on the evidence gathered against her and the way the investigation was carried out. Since her arrest, and through a four-month incarceration, Kaili has never wavered from her story. Her advocacy for Qatar, she has argued, was just part of her job as a European politician trying to foster ties with a petroleum-rich country in a region of critical importance to the EU.

Kaili’s lawyers have argued that the testimony provided by Panzeri, who has struck a deal with investigators and confessed in detail, cannot be trusted. Giorgi’s lawyer Pierre Monville has maintained his client’s statements were made under duress. “Whatever Giorgi has declared or written during his detention was under extreme pressure and preoccupation regarding the fact that his daughter was left without her parents,” he said.

Kaili’s lawyers have also noted that police kept Panzeri and Giorgi in the same cell in the days after their detention, giving them a chance to coordinate their stories. Kaili’s lawyers argue she was subjected to illegal surveillance, arbitrary detention and what amounts to “torture” while in jail.

The Qatargate suspects won a major victory last summer when the lead investigator Michel Claise stepped down over conflict of interest concerns after it was revealed that his son was in business with the son of an MEP who was close to Panzeri but hasn’t been arrested or charged. 

Then, in September, Kaili played the ace up her sleeve, throwing the entire investigation in doubt with a legal challenge arguing that the evidence against her should be ruled inadmissible because it was gathered before the European Parliament voted to lift the immunity she enjoyed as a lawmaker. 

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The Qatargate suspects won a major victory last summer when the lead investigator Michel Claise stepped down over conflict of interest concerns | BELPRESS

Prosecutors retort that such a step wasn’t needed because Kaili had been caught red-handed by her decision to send her father out with a suitcase full of cash, but the case has been delayed pending a decision on her challenge by an appeals court expected in the middle of next year.  

“We’re exploring uncharted legal territory here,” said a person familiar with the case, who requested anonymity as they were not allowed to speak on the record. In the meantime, Kaili is back in Parliament, giving interviews to international media and losing few opportunities to make the case for her innocence to her fellow lawmakers.

Giorgi and Kaili are, by all accounts, living together again. One of her lawyers says they’ve been given dispensation to do so, despite the fact that they are suspects in the same case. 

Kaili and Giorgi declined to comment for this article, but they clearly haven’t given up the fight. Giorgi’s WhatsApp status is “FORTITUDINE VINCIMUS” — through endurance, we conquer. 

Kaili’s profile pic on the app features the famous quote often wrongly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi:

“First they ignore you.

Then they laugh at you.

Then they fight you.

Then you win.”