The empty seat in Strasbourg

The empty seat in Strasbourg

When the newly elected European Parliament convenes this year on July 16 there will be an empty seat in the plenary hall within the Louise Weiss building in Strasbourg. Fredi Beleri, a dual Albanian and Greek national, who will surely be elected on the ticket of Greece’s ruling party, cannot be there as he sits in an Albanian prison awaiting appeal. Possibly Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party aims with this candidacy to shore up support among conservative voters after the adoption of a controversial gay marriage law last February which cost the party support on its right fringes.

Still the most interesting aspect of this move will be its impact on the relationship between the EU and Albania.

As examined previously in this publication, the Beleri arrest and conviction is a travesty of justice: police framed him in serious breach of criminal law, the court process was flawed in many aspects, the evidence and witnesses for the prosecution were laughable while exculpatory proof was disregarded by the presiding judge. All this happened after Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hammered Beleri with vicious insults during the municipal elections campaign but couldn’t diminish his obvious popularity as seen in opinion polls.

The reason was Rama’s obvious targeting of Himara’s highly valuable coastal land plots (aka the “Albanian Riviera”) to the benefit his own nouveau riche allies under his chosen candidate for city mayor. Indeed, the outgoing Socialist Party mayor of Himara was recently detained for forging cadastral documents so that the husband (himself a former Socialist MP) of Rama’s Defense and Foreign Minister would obtain prime beachfront land-plots for a few dimes.

It isn’t probable that Rama would want to engineer the Beleri release in order to avoid an awkward situation with the EU, although not completely impossible. The riches of Himara are a better prize than, say, two or three chapters successfully negotiated with Brussels.

The European Commission has remained so far silent regarding this case and even about the obviously illegal pretrial house arrest of Sali Berisha, the opposition leader.

This attitude may have several reasons as already explained here in detail. The most obvious seems the need to present as a success story the judicial system reform in Albania where the Commission has invested considerable political and financial capital, of course with the best intentions. Although various diplomats privately admit that the reform turned out to be very problematic, the bureaucrats of the Commission do not have the institutional and intellectual integrity or moral courage to acknowledge that the post-reform judicial bodies produce political prisoners. This is something which the old justice system, despite its sins and weaknesses, did not do since 2000.

The European Parliament on the other hand has properly raised the Beleri issue along with many other concerns. The main driver has been the EPP (European Peoples Party) group which is the biggest one and includes the Greek ruling party; the Albanian opposition Democratic Party is also a EPP member.

The latter already considers Beleri a political prisoner and the EPP has often been critical of Rama’s democratic backslide.

From July this year the Parliament will have Beleri, one of their MEPs, as a permanent absentee because of an incarceration it has already deemed arbitrary. This new situation will for sure raise Europe-wide awareness of the case and perhaps help the Commission to be more truthful and more helpful with regard to human rights and freedoms in the countries aspiring to join the EU.

Genc Pollo

Former Albanian MP (multiple terms) and former Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration

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