A court in Albania ruled that ethnic Greek minority leader Fredi Beleri, who won the mayoral elections in the city of Himara recently, should remain in prison until his trial.
Beleri was arrested two days before the 14 May local elections on suspicion of vote buying. The police said he was to be charged with active corruption in elections, something Beleri denies.
The Greek Foreign Ministry reacted to the news.
“The extension of the detention of Fredi Beleri, already elected Mayor of Himara Municipality, offends the sense of justice of the public and the European perception of the rule of law”, they said in a statement.
Diplomatic rift between Greece and Albania over Beleri
His arrest sparked a diplomatic rift between Tirana and Athens with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mistotakis saying the move could see Greece block Albania’s EU path.
Taking to social media last week, Mitsotakis emphasized the firm stance of Greece and the EU, stating, “Albania needs to understand that Greece and the EU will not accept any compromises on the rule of law and the protection of the rights of the ethnic Greek minority.”
On Monday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias met with his Albanian counterpart Olta Xhaçka on the sidelines of the EU Foreign Affairs Council where he raised the issue.
“During the discussion, the issue related to the elected mayor of Himara Municipality, Fredi Beleri, was also raised,” Dendias said, not revealing any other details of the meeting.
On her part, Xhacka in a series of tweets said that the issue is a judicial matter and should not affect relations between Albania and Greece.
“This is neither a Human Rights issue nor a political one, let alone a bilateral issue. Mr. Beleri enjoys the same rights as any other Albanian citizen and as every Albanian citizen he is not above the law.
“Vote-buying is a grave offense in our legislation and his case is now in court to be judged. The only thing we all can do is to patiently wait for the process to run its course and not prejudge or second guess the proceeding.”
Beleri is accused of buying votes
According to evidence leaked to Albanian media, wiretapping revealed Beleri and his plan for buying local election votes.
It is alleged a person provided him with a list of names of people who would vote for him if he gave them 5000 Lek (€45). He allegedly then promised to give the person passing him the list of names around €300.
The file states that the money was not handed over by Beleri but by a third person who met the intermediary in a bar in Himara, exchanging the money in the toilets.
Beleri, who also serves as the president of the local branch of Omonia, was running as a candidate in the municipal elections in Himara with the backing of both KEAD and Omonia, as well as the opposition coalition led by the Democratic Party, headed by former prime minister Sali Berisha, and the left-wing Freedom Party, led by former president Ilir Meta.
Greek minority in Albania
The Greek minority in Albania is concentrated in the south of the country, along the border with Greece, an area referred to by Greeks as “Northern Epirus”. The largest concentration is in the districts of Sarande, Gjirokaster, Delvine and in Himara.
Albania says that Greeks in the country number around 20,000, although the Greek minority organizations dispute this, claiming that their numbers are much higher.
Occasionally tensions boil over and create a crisis in bilateral relations between Tirana and Athens.
The most serious incident occurred in October 2018, when ethnic Greek Konstantinos Katsifas, was shot and killed by Albanian security forces in the village of Burat (Vouliarates). Local Greeks maintained that Katsifas was executed.