Ethnic Greek imprisoned in Albania hopes his election to European Parliament will boost rule of law

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — An Albanian prison cell wouldn’t rank high among choice spots to run a successful campaign for election to the European Parliament.

Fredis Beleris, a member of Albania’s ethnic Greek minority, had no choice. Last year, he was elected mayor of a town in southern Albania — a candidate to join the European Union — but lost his office and is now serving a two-year sentence for vote-buying in that election.

The case soured relations between the Balkan neighbors and led to the dual Greek-Albanian citizen’s election on June 9 to represent EU member Greece in the European Parliament. He ran on the ticket of Greece’s governing center-right party.

“I know (my election) will help put a spotlight on a major problem Albania faces, which is the rule of law,” Beleris told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday from prison.

“Here, the judiciary is the long arm of politics,” he added. “I think these problems must be brought to the fore — lack of respect for the Greek ethnic minority’s rights, such as the right to property … and to be governed by the people it elects.”

Beleris’ election isn’t unique. An Italian leftwing activist held in pretrial detention in EU member Hungary was released after her election to the European Parliament on an Italian party’s ballot.

Members of the legislature enjoy substantial legal immunity from prosecution within the 27-state EU, even over alleged crimes committed before their election. But Albania is not an EU member, and unlike Beleris, the new Italian member of the European Parliament had not been convicted in court.

Athens described Beleris’ detention and trial as politically motivated and implied Albania’s prospects of joining the EU would suffer. The case is complicated by fractious Balkan politics, minority rights and property disputes on a prime coastal stretch of what’s marketed as the Albanian Riviera, the top tourist destination in the country.

Some 10 million tourists visited the small country last year, contributing about a fifth of the economy.

“I had no intention of entering politics in Greece, it was because of the need to highlight this huge problem,” Beleris said. “Anybody who knows me knows for sure that I would prefer to have been mayor.”

Beleris, 51, was arrested two days before the May 14, 2023 municipal elections in Himare, on the Albanian Riviera, 220 kilometers (140 miles) southwest of the capital, Tirana. He was charged with offering some 40,000 Albanian leks ($390) to buy eight votes.

He won with a 19-vote lead, backed by the ethnic Greek minority party and others opposing Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s governing Socialists. But he never took office, being detained until his court conviction in March. An appeals court upheld the ruling on Tuesday.

Beleris denies the charges, claiming that Rama targeted him to keep control of Himare, and that judges ignored evidence in his favor. Albanian officials strongly reject his claims, citing the independence of the judiciary.

Judicial corruption has long plagued post-communist Albania. The system recently underwent deep reforms, following EU and U.S. pressure to root out bribery and ensure judges are independent from politics.

In March, Albanian officials arrested Beleris’ main rival Jorgo Goro, who was appointed acting Himare mayor after the vote-buying case. Goro was charged with allegedly faking documents to obtain local land for an ex-lawmaker planning a tourist resort.

Beleris said he believes that at the heart of his case are “huge financial interests as far as tourist development is concerned.”

“But it’s also that the Albanian prime minister doesn’t want the local (ethnic) Greek population to share in that prosperity,” he said. “That’s a direct breach of our human and minority rights.”

Relations between Greece and Albania have been at times uneasy, largely over minority rights and the sizeable Albanian migrant community in Greece.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has strongly backed Beleris, giving him a place on his New Democracy party’s ticket. Beleris won some 235,000 votes, coming fourth among the seven MEPs the party elected.

Mitsotakis’ move came as ND was struggling to staunch a leak of votes from its traditional conservative base towards small far-right parties. Greece is also at loggerheads with another small Balkan neighbor and EU hopeful, North Macedonia, and has suggested that country’s efforts to join the bloc could also suffer in consequence.

So far, the EU Commission has treated the Beleris matter as a bilateral dispute. EU membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia started in 2022 and are expected to last for years.

“I think Albania must join the European Union sooner or later, but … with the rules and the rule of law that befit a European country,” Beleris said.

Beleris’ sentence ends in mid-October. Barring an early release, he won’t join the other 704 lawmakers in the Strasbourg-based parliament for its first session on July 16.

He could, however, attend by videoconference — he’s already held such meetings with Greek MEPs — following permission from the prison authorities.


Associated Press writer Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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