In Himara’s lucrative coastline, land deals lead to acting mayor’s arrest and political limbo

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 25, 2024 22:58

In Himara’s lucrative coastline, land deals lead to acting mayor’s arrest and political limbo

Story Highlights

  • The arrest is the latest event in a complicated web of political, commercial and ethnic interests that have left Himara municipality in political limbo and caused a rift between Albania and Greece.

Related Articles

TIRANA, March 25, 2024 - Himara Municipality, which has one of the most commercially lucrative tourist coastlines in Albania, saw its acting mayor arrested over the weekend, as Jorgo Goro, a representative of the ruling Socialist Party, faces charges of allowing the irregular registration of two coastal properties through forged documents. 

The arrest is the latest event in a complicated web of political, commercial and ethnic interests that have left Himara municipality in limbo and caused a rift between Albania and Greece.

Goro was acting as mayor after his elected mandate had ended last year. The man who won the election, Fredi Beleri, is currently in prison, convicted on charges of vote buying, and has not been allowed by the justice system to be sworn in.  

Goro’s arrest and Beleri’s conviction, which is still under appeal, leave Himara Municipality in a legal gray zone and without a mayor until new elections can be held or Beleri is allowed to be sworn in. 

In fact, it was a complaint filed in August by Beleri that led to Goro’s investigation and arrest. The complaint alleged that Goro had facilitated the registration of a land acquisition act in the name of a Himara resident at the former Local Office for Registration of Immovable Property in Vlora, using fraudulent procedures and documents.

-Opposition sees PM’s plans in latest arrest-

Albania’s opposition and representatives of the ethnic Greek minority, which Beleri says he represents, issued statements that Goro’s arrest is part of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s play to make sure the opposition doesn’t take over Himara’s mayorship.

Rama recently placed Vangjel Tavo, a representative of the ethnic Greek minority, as prefect of the Vlora County, which includes Himara. Albanian media have for weeks been reporting that Tavo is being slated to take over running Himara.

Beleri is a representative of a political party advocating for the rights of the Greek minority in Albania and he was arrested two days before the May 14, 2023 municipal elections, in which he garnered support from the broader Albanian center-right opposition coalition. Despite being confined to a jail cell, Beleri won the closely contested mayoral race in Himara against SP’s Goro.

Beleri and Athens have been asking Albania’s authorities that he be allowed to be sworn in, but those requests have gone on deaf ears in Albania’s justice system, which the Albanian opposition insists is acting on Rama’s behalf, a charge he denies. 

A large portion of Himara’s population speaks Greek at home, but the area is not recognized as a minority municipality by Tirana, which sees the Greek-speaking residents as ethnic Albanians. 

Beleri’s arrest has led to a cooling in Albania-Greece relations and threats from Athens to freeze Albania’s EU integration process, which is already going at a snail pace for two decades.  

-Several others wanted in the investigation-

Authorities also issued an arrest warrant for Stavri Mehilli, the original heir to a property in question. Additionally, two officials from the Vlora Cadastre Office have been placed under house arrest. An arrest warrant has been issued for the Director of the Land Defense and Management Directorate in Himara Municipality, Jerasimo Bashi, who remains at large.

According to the Special Prosecution Office, Goro in two separate episodes committed actions contrary to the law. 

“In cooperation with the Municipality Director Bashi, without conducting any concrete verification as required by law, they submitted completely forged documents to the competent authorities, subsequently enabling the registration of a 5512 m2 agricultural land in state ownership in favor of a private entity. This land located in Dhermi, Vlora, after registration in the public records due to unlawful actions by responsible individuals (the two Vlora Cadastre officials), was transferred to a private entity, stripping the state of its ownership," the Special Prosecution Office said in a statement. "This transfer was accompanied by unjust enrichment for another individual under investigation, Stavri Mehilli." 

According to the prosecution Mehilli has used forged documents and forms multiple times, both at several institutions and procedural authorities. 

-Ties to SP-linked businessman explored-

The properties related to the arrest, after several transactions, ended up in the hands of the entrepreneur Artan Gaçi, the husband of former Socialist Party Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka, for the construction of a tourist complex on the Dhermi coast. 

Gaçi is also among those named in Beleri's complaint, who alleges that all these practices aimed to transfer the land to the husband of the former minister, including it as part of the area where he has begun constructing a tourist complex. 

Last October, the Special Prosecution Office announced that this area had been placed under seizure by the court. Xhaçka reacted at the time, stating that this was a measure taken "to investigate the origin of a private property since 1994." 

However, problems seem not only to involve this part of the land where Gaçi has invested but also another part of the area where Goro has also transferred a piece of land to state ownership through alleged falsifications. 

"In the capacity of Mayor of Himara Municipality, in another episode of the same criminal procedure, Mr. Goro has committed actions contrary to the law. In cooperation with Director Bashi, he has effectively carried out the factual relocation of a 5080 m2 agricultural land, superimposing it with another property in state ownership. The individual under investigation has exceeded all the competencies recognized by law," according to the Special Prosecution Office.

The construction of the tourist complex by Gaçi had earlier become a subject of political debate in parliament. The husband of the former minister had been granted the status of a strategic investor by the government. This fact, according to the opposition, constituted a conflict of interest and for this reason demanded that Xhacka be stripped of her seat in parliament, which SP has refused to do. 

The issue ended up in the Constitutional Court, which deemed parliament's decision incorrect and ordered the case to be brought before it. However, more than a year has passed, and the issue has been delayed by the SP majority and has not yet reached the court.

-Property rights remain complex-

Property rights in post-communist Albania are complex due to a combination of historical, legal and social factors. The lack of clear property records and the emergence of informal land transactions further complicated the situation. The overlapping claims, ambiguous legal frameworks and inadequate enforcement mechanisms have made resolving property disputes a challenging and lengthy process. 

Furthermore, corruption and political interference have undermined the rule of law, further exacerbating the challenges associated with property rights. As a result, property rights remain contentious, impeding economic development and social stability.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 25, 2024 22:58