‘What law dictates that I cannot be sworn in?’

Himare’s ethnic Greek mayor-elect refutes Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s arguments justifying his detention 

‘What law dictates that I cannot be sworn in?’

In a double appeal for his release, Fredi Beleri, the ethnic Greek who was elected mayor of Himare in southern Albania in the municipal elections of May 14, addresses the judicial institutions as well as the prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama.

In an interview with Kathimerini, Beleri, who has not been allowed to be sworn in as he was arrested for alleged vote-buying two days before the polls, implores the prime minister to take the lead in “politically endorsing the notion that the detention of a democratically elected public official should not be open-ended.”

The jailed mayor-elect is willing to go by Rama’s assertion in his recent interview with Kathimerini that he was unaware of his arrest. Furthermore, he offers commentary on the position of the Albanian premier, who said he would prefers to hold off new elections in Himare until after the trial.

He welcomes Rama’s self-criticism, addressing the derogatory terms used against him during the election campaign, and stresses that he never advocated for the “Hellenization” of Himare, as he has been accused, and takes pride in the fact that his election victory demonstrated support from both Greeks and Albanians.

This Sunday, September 3, marks the completion of your 115th day in prison. How are you holding up personally?

The conditions I’m experiencing resemble those of an Albanian prison. The staff treats me well, and my morale is exceptionally high. It’s fueled by the bitterness I feel regarding the injustice against me. Do you understand what it’s like to be unjustly incarcerated? To witness attempts to intimidate the citizens of Himare? And when voters refuse to be intimidated and elect you as mayor, you are then prohibited from taking the oath? The tragic aspect of it all is that, despite these circumstances, the man whom the people of Himare chose to send home through their votes continues to hold the position of mayor. No one seems to talk about that.

On the eve of the municipal elections, Rama publicly labeled you as his “personal enemy.” Furthermore, Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party of Albania supported you. Are you acting as an instrument of the opposition with the intention of overthrowing the Albanian prime minister?

That is not all Rama said. He publicly called me “scum,” “trash” and the like. However, my involvement in politics has been centered on issues strictly related to the municipality. I stressed that in municipal elections, we do not choose a prime minister or a member of parliament. Instead, we elect a mayor whose responsibilities should be confined to matters within the municipal boundaries. I have never engaged in opposition against the prime minister, despite receiving support from the united opposition. The only source of pride for me is that the elections demonstrated my ability to persuade the citizens of Himare, both Greeks and Albanians, to vote for me. My sole concern is the welfare of my hometown, Himare.

Rama attributed the use of harsh language to the fact that in your campaign speeches, you allegedly mentioned “Hellenizing” and “liberating Himare,” which he perceived as promoting nationalist rhetoric.

I never talked about “Hellenizing” or “liberating” Himare. I only talked about protecting the [ethnic] Greek community in Himare. During a deliberate misinterpretation on an Albanian television program, the term “Hellenism,” which translates as “Helenizmi” in Albanian, was mistakenly translated as “Hellenization,” or “Helenizoi.” I spoke about us, the Greeks of Himara, because Albania, dating back to the era of [longtime communist dictator Enver] Hoxha, has not officially recognized the existence of an ethnic Greek minority in our region. Albanian nationalists, in fact, refer to the people of Himare as an “Albanian population influenced by Greece” or describe them as a “population with a fluid conscience” or even as “philhellenes, but not Greeks.” Nonetheless, in my family, as is the case with the majority of the Himare population, we speak Greek. We didn’t learn it in a Greek school, as it was closed from 1945 until 2007, when a private school was established. I was heartened when I read in the interview that the Albanian prime minister naturally acknowledged the Greeks of Himare. Our goal is to preserve Hellenism in Himare. How can you Hellenize Greeks?

‘The continued presence of my opponent, who was defeated in the May elections, in the position of Himare mayor is unjustified. Naturally, my treatment appears vengeful’ 

In his Kathimerini interview, Rama admitted that some of the statements he made against you during the pre-election period were excessive. Did that satisfy you?

I’m pleased that Rama has engaged in self-criticism regarding the unjust attack. However, I remain in detention. Despite being in pretrial custody and not having been convicted, I am barred from exercising my political rights and taking the oath as mayor. What law dictates that I cannot be sworn in while in pretrial detention? There is a precedent with two elected members of parliament, Azgan Haklaj in 2001 and Mark Frroku in 2015, who took the oath while in pretrial detention. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: The continued presence of my opponent, who was defeated in the May elections, in the position of Himare mayor is unjustified as well as politically and morally unjustifiable. Naturally, my treatment appears vengeful. All of these factors render my prosecution political and expose vulnerabilities in the justice system. Depriving me of my political rights and disregarding the presumption of innocence harm not only me but also the people of Himare. However, primarily, it tarnishes Albania’s international image.

You mentioned the vulnerable state of the justice system. Rama expressed his trust in the Albanian justice system, affirming its independence from him. He underscored the ongoing reforms aimed at bolstering the integrity of this institution, all under the rigorous oversight of the EU, including Greece, and with strong support from the United States. How do you respond to this?

Judges, too, are subject to scrutiny. Let me outline, in the simplest terms possible, what has unfolded over the past four months. The police began to surveil me using covert techniques reminiscent of Hoxha’s Sigurimi [security service], practices that have been prohibited since the 1990s. For the surveillance, they recruited an individual convicted of fraud in 2020, who was wired by state security 15 days before the alleged incident. The authorization for this surveillance was granted retroactively, after my arrest, by a prosecutor who lacks jurisdiction. As a candidate for mayor, I was apprehended while sitting in a cafe with my friends, constituting a flagrant arrest. The judges who initiated legal proceedings against me and ordered my detention all have prior affiliations or close ties to the Socialist Party of Albania.

Most notably, nowhere in the illicit recordings do I appear giving or accepting money for vote-buying. I am barred from taking the oath as mayor due to a prosecutor’s use of a forged document ostensibly showing my prior conviction. Simultaneously, my criminal record, when electronically issued, remains clean. I’ve been held in pretrial detention for 115 days on charges of alleged vote-buying, involving a meager sum of 340 euros. To put this into perspective, if they had accused me of [spending] 1 million euros [to buy votes], as they have with many former ministers and associates of Mr Rama, I would go to jail for 913 years! In the May municipal elections, 35 instances of electoral irregularities were reported, yet I was the sole individual to be detained. Furthermore, in the 33 years since the fall of communism, during which we have heard about electoral offenses, only one person has been arrested – myself, a person of Greek descent. Therefore, it is insufficient to merely discuss an independent justice system and reforms; they must also be demonstrated in practice.

In his interview with Kathimerini, the Albanian prime minister said that he learned of your arrest while the operation was in progress. Do you believe this?

I am willing to view Mr Rama’s account in a charitable light. This suggests that certain state officials were more Catholic than the pope, as it were. Influenced by Rama’s pre-election rhetoric against me, which commenced on May 6, they orchestrated this entire conspiracy against me on May 8. Mr Rama persisted in his personal attacks against me throughout the same week, which seemingly emboldened the authorities to arrest me abruptly at midnight on May 11. In such a case, one would assume that shadowy forces and extremist nationalist circles are operating as a parallel entity within Albania’s institutions, fabricating schemes that lead both the judiciary and politicians astray. If this is indeed the case, then it is the duty of the country’s prime minister to investigate this matter, and, with courage and generosity, to unveil the deception, and to rectify the grim reality in which they have ensnared me, the people of Himare, and above all, the country. If, on the other hand, it is not, then we are in trouble.

Rama also expressed the view that perhaps the Albanian state should wait for the trial before proceeding with new elections in Himare. Does this signal a gesture of goodwill toward the Greek minority?

Rama magnanimously admits that he has never seen such a case before and states that he prefers to wait for the outcome of the trial. He says this because, while I am an elected mayor, I remain for unknown reasons under indefinite detention. He won’t even let me take the oath through a notary in the prison. At the same time, the mayor’s office is still controlled by his own man. So why should Rama want to rush?

Why do you believe you should be released from prison?

Someone is remanded in custody in three cases: When he is suspected of repeating the same crime if released; to prevent him from interfering with the preliminary investigation by influencing the witnesses; and when there is suspicion he may flee the country. We don’t have elections in Albania, so I can’t repeat the crime I was wrongly accused of. The preliminary investigation is over and I cannot influence the witnesses. Finally, as mayor, I have a known residence and no one believes that I will flee the country. Consequently, I appeal to the institutions and officials of justice to make an overreach, to accept that the detention cannot continue and to release me. I also appeal to Prime Minister Rama to go the extra mile and politically support the idea that the detention of a democratically elected public official cannot continue indefinitely.

In his interview, Rama categorically denied that the ethnic Greeks of Albania have fewer rights than the rest of the Albanian citizens and denied that the Greeks of Himare have to pre-sell their property to investors selected by the government to obtain property titles. Do you have other information?

Enver Hoxha’s communist regime took all our properties. With the collapse of communism 33 years ago, the process of returning the titles to the owners began. It is a matter of particular interest to the EU and it is supposed to be a priority for the Albanian governments and especially for Rama, who has been ruling the country for the last 10 years. In May 2020, Act 20 came into force to resolve this issue. The numbers are unforgiving. About 8,000 people from Himare followed the provisions of Law 20/2020 and applied for the return of their property. To date, three years later, about 30 have been awarded. I’ll repeat that to make sure there is no mistake – I said about 30 titles. That is, less than 0.4% of the requests have been satisfied. Needless to say, all the deadlines set by Law 20/2020 itself have been blatantly violated. In almost all cases of property returns, there was already a signed private transfer agreement to an investor.

One of these titles was also bought by the husband of the Albanian foreign minister, according to what has been reported in the Albanian Parliament. He is now building a hotel on the beach of Drymades [Dhermi]. I personally believe in an open economy and investments, in attracting investors. Especially in Himare, attracting investors will highlight the area, provide growth and prosperity. As long as there are rules to be followed and equality of opportunity. Most importantly, the investor should not come from a gray zone of legality, he should not be a looter who extorts and seizes the properties of Greeks or Albanians by exploiting either loopholes in legislation or corrupt government officials.

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