Analysis: Continued detention of elected mayor strains Albanian-Greek relations

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 17, 2023 12:19

Analysis: Continued detention of elected mayor strains Albanian-Greek relations

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  • A figure with a controversial past, Beleri has now set Albania and Greece for collision. 

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TIRANA, Aug. 16, 2023 — The arrest and three-month-long pretrial detention of Fredi Beleri, the elected mayor of Himara, a coastal town in southwestern Albania, has ignited a diplomatic row between Albania and Greece and has prompted scrutiny on political influence on Albania's justice system. 

Beleri is a key figure in a political party that advocates for the rights of the Greek minority in Albania. He was arrested on vote-buying charges just two days before the municipal elections of May 14, in which he had the support of the wider Albanian center-right opposition coalition. Beleri ended up winning the close Himara mayoral race from a jail cell. 

The timing of his arrest triggered a cascade of reactions from both domestic and international observers, straining the relations between Tirana and Athens.

Beleri is a controversial figure with a shady past of activities against the Albanian state, but the arrest and unusually lengthy pretrial detention that is making him unable to be sworn into office have raised concerns about the rule of law, minority rights and the implications for Albania's European integration process.

Vote-buying charges have been levied on more than two dozen various officials and candidates in recent months across Albania, but most, if not all, were released pending trial. 

-Greece threatens Albania’s EU bid- 

Angelos Syrigos, an MP from Greece’s ruling party, paid a visit to Beleri in pre-trial detention this week, highlighting that his arrest and the prevention of his oath-taking as mayor could significantly exacerbate the diplomatic relations between the two neighboring countries. Syrigos warned that such actions could impede Albania's ongoing bid for integration into the European Union, casting a shadow over the nation's EU aspirations.

Syrigos argued that the principles of law, the presumption of innocence, and the protection of citizens' rights should be regarded seriously, not only by Albania's legal system but also by the European Union, especially considering the impending negotiations between Albania and the EU.

It was only the latest official comment from Greece, with demands on Beleri’s release coming from Greece’s top leaders, including the prime minister and the foreign minister.

Beleri’s case has become a cause celebre beyond nationalist circles in Greece, and protests have taken place on both sides of the border, with supporters, including the mayors of Greece’s two largest cities, demanding Beleri's release and the recognition of his electoral mandate. 

The Albanian government says there is a need for judicial independence and has defended the legality of Beleri's arrest and underscored the importance of letting the justice system follow its course. 

“In my memory, there is no other case when the elected officials of a democratic state organize a protest in another democratic state, against the authorities of this state,” Prime Minister Edi Rama said via social media. “Not only that, but where they appear as protesters against the decisions of the respective courts of the state in which they are protesting, absolutising the ethnic affiliation of the subject of the protest over any legal norm, legal standard and democratic logic.”

Rama also argued that mayors from his own Socialist Party had gotten the same treatment when facing similar charges. 

-Albanian opposition sees money as root of Beleri case-

The Albanian opposition says that is not the case however. Its leaders have called Beleri “a political prisoner” and focused on the fact that no other person charged with the crime Beleri has been charged with has been held in pretrial detention this long.

The main center-right opposition leader and former prime minister, Sali Berisha, did not mince words on the case, calling Beleri’s arrest "Edi Rama's Stalinist act … in order to ensure the continuation of his complete mafia control over the lands of the residents of Himara.”

Opposition representatives argue that the ruling Socialist Party is actively working to thwart Beleri's assumption of the mayoral role, driven by their vested stake in a contentious development plan along the Ionian Sea-coast, particularly within the highly sought-after area overseen by Himara’s municipality.

Genc Pollo, a former opposition MP, notes that a group of oligarchs aligned with Rama is resolute in appropriating land, including beaches and hill slopes, which are primarily owned by local traditional residents. 

“A group of oligarchs around Rama have been set to grab the land (beaches and hill slopes) that belongs mostly to local traditional residents in order to develop touristic resorts. They use the state agencies to force owners to sell at fire-sale prices. … The parliamentary majority is blocking the opposition inquiry and is ignoring Constitutional Court rulings on the case,” Pollo wrote. “Beleri had repeatedly vowed to use mayoral powers for hindering such predatory and corrupt practices. Given the municipal competences in urban planning he would have some legal instruments for keeping that promise.”

Pollo also added that the Beleri case significantly revolves around fundamental human rights, the adherence to the rule of law, and the preservation of democracy in Albania. These considerations remain paramount, irrespective of whether Greece or the European Union show interest in the matter, he noted.

-Beleri a controversial figure- 

Rama’s attacks on Beleri are popular among a large percentage of Albanians who view the elected mayor as anti-Albanian Greek nationalist. Beleri is a controversial figure. He has been accused of being part of an armed raid on an Albanian border post in 1994 which killed two soldiers and injured several others. The accusations against him were never proven, and the case, reopened several times by Albania’s justice system, was archived due to lack of evidence. Beleri says he has cooperated with authorities and that the accusations are false.

In 2003, Beleri did find himself sentenced to a three-year imprisonment in Albania due to his involvement in “inciting ethnic hatred.” Seizing an opportunity, he escaped from Albania and spent the ensuing ten years abroad, awaiting the expiration of the statute of limitations. Only when he felt assured of impunity did he venture back to Albania.

But Beleri has faced criminal charges in Greece too. Harking back to 1995, a gripping episode unfolded at the Greek-Albanian border. Here, Greek authorities intercepted a group, their vehicles laden with an arsenal comprising weapons, ammunition, knives, and military regalia. Amid this cohort was a youthful 23-year-old Beleri, accompanied by others, including Pandeli Kokaveshi, now his business partner who was also arrested during the vote-buying incident.

Greek police linked some of the weapons to the Northern Epirus Liberation Front (MAVI), a Greek paramilitary faction that stirred turmoil during the 1990s across Albania and Greece, including storming an Albanian border post and killing two soldiers. Although the accused initially faced grave charges, they eventually stood trial for a more minor charge of weapons smuggling. A Greek court sentenced them to 3 to 4.5 years and they served 18 to 20 months.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 17, 2023 12:19