Albania court upholds jailing of ethnic Greek mayor who won European Parliament seat

By Fatos Bytyci

TIRANA (Reuters) -An Albanian appeals court on Tuesday upheld a lower court conviction on vote-buying charges of ethnic Greek politician Fredi Beleris, three weeks after he won a seat in the European Parliament elections.

Beleris was arrested in May 2023 during a mayoral election campaign in his hometown of Himare, which has an active ethnic Greek community. He subsequently won, but was never sworn in while being held in pre-trial detention. He was jailed for two years in March this year for election fraud.

Beleris's case has strained relations between Albania and Greece, Balkan neighbours whose ties have often soured over cultural and historical differences, as well as the many Albanian immigrants in Greece and the Greek minority in Albania.

In a statement to Reuters, Beleris accused Prime Minister Edi Rama of organising a plot against him and said he had already initiated a procedure to appeal his case at the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg.

"Those who had delusions that Rama will act as a leader of a country that wants to join the European Union rather than as another authoritarian leader have been disproved," Beleris said.

Rama has repeatedly denied any involvement in the Beleris case, saying it was a judicial, not a political, matter.

Greece demanded Beleris's immediate release, warning the matter could impact Albania's bid for European Union membership.

"Mr Beleris is already an elected member of the European Parliament," Greek Ambassador to Albania Konstantina Kamitsi said on Tuesday, criticising the outcome of the appeals process.

"It's an absolute democratic requirement and a requirement under the rule of law that elected MEPs can attend in person all sessions of the European Parliament, starting with the plenary session of the European Parliament in July."

Beleris won a seat in the EU parliament as a candidate for Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' conservative New Democracy Party.

Beleris, who has dual citizenship, has been viewed by some in Albania as a polarising figure. He said the fact he won the votes of both ethnic Greeks and Albanians in Himare, an ethnically-mixed area, proved he was a unifying candidate.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Karolina Tagaris in Athens; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; editing by Mark Heinrich and Gareth Jones)