Ethnic Greek Beleris secures EU parliament seat from Albania jail

Drone view shows the European Parliament building in Strasbourg

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) - When ethnic Greek politician Fredi Beleris was voted into the European Parliament on Sunday while jailed in Albania, supporters in his Albanian hometown lit flares and fireworks in celebration.

Beleris, who ran for election with a Greek party, is due in court on Friday to appeal a conviction on charges of vote-buying in a local mayoral election a year before, which he said on Wednesday were false and motivated by politics.

"The only just decision would be my acquittal," Beleris told Reuters in a telephone interview from prison. "There is no evidence against me. There is no way the decision would be different in any other state."

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

He was arrested in May 2023 during a mayoral election campaign in his hometown of Himare, on the scenic Albanian Riviera, 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 in March this year for election fraud.

Beleris, who won a seat in the EU parliament representing Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' New Democracy Party, said his victory was a message to formerly communist Albania, which is seeking to join the EU.

"It cannot behave like a non-European country," he said.

After Beleris was jailed last year, Greece demanded his immediate release, warning it could impact Albania's EU bid. Athens' longstanding position has been that Albania should respect the rights of an elected mayor and that its EU quest depends on it respecting the rule of law.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has said the Beleris case was a judicial, not political, matter.

Beleris said Albania's EU accession was in the best interest of both countries.

"Neither I nor, I believe, the Greek government has any intention of hurting the accession of any country," he said.

"(But) an Albania that is a member of the EU but does not respect the rule of law and the will of the people does not belong there," he said.

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

"There is nobody who wants Albania to be a normal European country more than I do," he said.

"Those who accuse me of being divisive should look to the people of Himare and the Greek people for the answer."

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; editing by Mark Heinrich)