Albanian appeals court upholds prison term for Greek minority mayor, raising tensions with Athens

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — An Albanian appeals court on Tuesday upheld a two-year prison sentence for an elected mayor of the country’s Greek minority, in a move expected to further exacerbate tension with neighboring Greece.

The appeals court declined to change the verdict of the court of first instance in March on Dhionisios Alfred Beleris, 51, who was imprisoned on charges of vote-buying in municipal elections last year.

Beleris, who has dual citizenship, also won a Greek seat in the European Parliament, representing the governing conservative New Democracy party, in the EU elections earlier this month.

Last year Beleris was elected mayor of Himare, 240 kilometers (150 miles) south of the capital, Tirana. He was arrested two days before the vote, accused of offering 40,000 Albanian leks (360 euro at the time) to buy eight votes. Beleris was never sworn in because he was under arrest and later sentenced to two years imprisonment.

Beleris has denied the charges, and Athens has described his detention as politically motivated.

Greece had called on Albania’s government to stop the process against Beleris, saying the case could negatively impact Albania’s application to join the European Union. Albania, a candidate country, is in the process of negotiating full membership.

Albania’s government said it could do nothing while the case was in court.

European Parliament lawmakers enjoy substantial legal immunity from prosecution, even if the allegations relate to crimes committed prior to their election.

In the case of Beleris, that rule is unlikely to affect the outcome, as he is serving time for a crime committed in a non-EU member country.

“It is a fully democratic request that members of the European Parliament be able to be present in person at all parliamentary sessions, starting from July,” said Greek Ambassador to Albania Kostantina Kamitsi.

Six countries in the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – are at different stages in their applications for EU membership. Croatia was the last EU member country to be accepted in 2013.

Western concerns over regional stability triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine have added urgency to the accession process.

Greece and Albania, a former communist country and a current NATO member, have a historically tense relationship with uneasy relations at times, largely over issues of Greek minority rights and the sizable Albanian community in Greece.

Llazar Semini, The Associated Press