Greece protests arrest of mayoral candidate in Albania accused of buying votes

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The detention of a mayoral candidate belonging to the Greek minority in Albania has raised tensions between the two neighboring countries.

Greece’s Foreign Ministry released a statement Saturday demanding the release of Dionysis-Fredi Beleri, a candidate for mayor of the Albanian city of Himare, which has a strong Greek minority presence.

Greek media reported that Beleri was arrested by Albanian police early Friday on charges of vote buying, two days ahead of local elections. A court confirmed Saturday that he would remain in custody.

The Greek ministry’s announcement implies that the case could negatively impact Albania’s application to join the European Union.

“Today’s decision of the Vlora District Court, if there is no irrefutable evidence, constitutes a scandal. The arrest of a mayoral candidate two days before the elections is not within the rule of law. The decision to detain the mayoral candidate in custody induces a full reversal of the rules of equality in the municipal elections in Himare, a significant center of the Greek national minority in Albania,” the ministry’s statement says.

“Such a decision will also have repercussions on the European Union’s relations with Albania, as adherence to European rules and the principles of the rule of law is a prerequisite for this European path. Decisions such as today’s, which violate these principles, mean that in practice Albania is not following the European path,” the announcement continues.

Albanian Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka responded angrily, saying she considered it “nearly impossible to understand how our friends have the right to dispute a court decision in our country, when the hard evidence they were looking for couldn’t be any harder - Fredi Beleri has been caught engaging in criminal activity against free and fair elections.”

Relations between Greece and post-communist Albania have been at times uneasy, largely over the issues of minority rights and the sizeable Albanian community in Greece.

“We do not understand how being a Greek national exempts him from the law as a citizen of Albania. We urge our Greek friends to refrain from making statements that disrespect the independent institutions of our country,” Xhacka tweeted.