Two days before the mayoral elections of Albania on May 14, Dionysis-Fredi Beleri, a Greek candidate for Mayor of the southern municipality of Himara, was arrested by Albanian special forces on May 12. The arrest was based on charges of allegedly “buying of votes.”

The arrest, however, did not stop Beleri from winning the election from behind bars. He is now the elected mayor of Himara – a town with a significant Greek community presence. Beleri represents the Unity for Human Rights Party (KEAD) of the ethnic Greek minority and was supported by the opposition coalition. 

The Greek minority makes up Albania’s largest ethnic minority. It is an indigenous minority and recognized by Albania as a national minority.  

The Omonia organization, the “Union for Human Rights Party” (KEAD) and the “National Greek Minority for the Future” party (MEGA) are the main representatives of Albania’s Greek community. Beleri also serves as the president of Omonia’s local branch.

KEAD and Omonia have called the arrests an “attack against the Hellenism of Albania.”

Albania’s decision to arrest Beleri “is scandalous if the evidence is not fully substantiated,” the Greek Foreign Affairs Ministry said on May 13.

“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 added. 

The Greek ministry warned that the decision will affect Albania’s relations with the European Union as the country needs to ensure the prerequisites of European rules and the principles of the rule of law for accession.

In response, on May 13, Albanian Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka issued a statement on her Twitter account:

[It is] 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.

Albania is a majority Muslim country in the Balkans and a candidate for European Union membership. Albania applied for EU membership in 2009 and was granted candidate status in 2014. The EU held its first intergovernmental conference with Albania in 2022.

On May 22, Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the “extension of the detention of Himare’s elected Mayor Fredi Beleri is contrary to the common sense of justice and the European perception of the Rule of Law.”

On May 29, Beleri was transferred to a prison hospital after he became unwell due to heart-related health problems. “It is the second time that Beleri has shown these symptoms in the last two days, and he will undergo specific tests,” according to Greek media. 

When the appeal lodged by Beleri against the continuation of his pre-trial detention was rejected on June 1, the Greek Foreign Ministry issued another statement noting that even though there were many similar allegations of electoral offenses against others, Beleri was the only one arrested. 

Today’s rejection of the appeal lodged by Himara’s elected Mayor, Fredi Beleri, against the continuation of his pre-trial detention, does not turn out to be in line with the provisions of the rule of law; also, it does not constitute fair treatment of an elected representative of Local Government, given that, according to a statement issued by the Special Prosecutor’s Office of Albania, Fredi Beleri is the only person detained out of a total of 31 criminal reports for electoral offenses.

Furthermore, the rejection of his appeal raises questions as to the existence of political expediency for continuing his detention, since it essentially obstructs F. Beleri’s assumption of duties as Mayor.

According to a Greek media outlet, “On the way to the ballot box, Beleri was reportedly harshly attacked by a section of the Albanian press and also by Prime Minister Edi Rama himself.

Just a few hours before Beleri’s arrest, Rama allegedly declared to a television station that the day after the elections he would ‘account personally’ with Beleri.

Anna-Michelle Asimakopoulou, a European Parliament Member, brought the arrest to the attention of the European Commission:

The timing of the arrest just two days before the local elections, as well as the absence of any evidence against Mr Beleri, are giving cause for particular concern. 

Such actions merely serve to undermine the principles of the rule of law and democracy and fly in the face of the 2022 Commission Report on Albania, which received European Parliament endorsement, as well as Albania’s commitments as a candidate country.

In view of this, can the Commission state its position regarding the arrest by the Albanian police of mayoral candidate Fredi Beleri and say what its response has been? And how does it intend to uphold the rule of law and democracy, as well as the rights of the Greek national minority in Albania, while ensuring fair elections in that country?

The European Commission has yet to respond. 

Fredi is not the first Greek political leader persecuted by the government of Albania. For decades Albania has repressed the rights of ethnic Greeks, who live primarily in the south. 

In 1991, for instance, Omonia was banned after winning five seats in the parliamentary election for allegedly violating Law 7501 (1991) which forbade “formation of parties on a religious, ethnic and regional basis.” 

In 1994, five prominent political leaders of the Greek minority – who were all leaders of Omonia – were arrested and later convicted of “espionage and illegal possession of weapons” despite massive protests from Greece and international human rights organizations. The trial was widely regarded as unfair. The details of the trial were reported by the Human Rights Watch/Helsinki (HRW) members who visited Albania to observe the human rights situation of the Greek community between 1993 and 1995. 

The report by the HRW said they believed “that there is evidence that the five Omonia activists were denied due process protections, and that decisions related to the prosecution, trial and sentencing were motivated by bias.”

The 1995 HRW report also detailed how Albanian authorities subjected the Greek minority citizens to police harassment and violence, as well as restrictions on religious freedom, restrictions on freedom of assembly and restrictions on minority access to the media.

The report noted:

The organization representing the Greek minority, Omonia, and the predominantly Greek political party, Union of Human Rights, experienced some obstacles to fair participation in the 1992 national elections. There have also been restrictions on freedom of assembly, religion and expression for ethnic Greeks.

More serious, however, are the actions of the Albanian police and secret service in the south of Albania, where most ethnic Greeks live. Particularly before the trial of the five Omonia leaders charged with espionage, many people were improperly detained and interrogated, creating an atmosphere of fear among the Greek minority.

The trial itself, which began in August 1994, contained many violations of Albanian and international law regarding the conditions of arrest and treatment under detention, inadequate due process guarantees and denial of a fair and public trial. These violations lend credibility to the claim that the trial was a targeted attack against a legal organization representing the Greek minority.

The increased tensions between the Albanian government and the ethnic Greek minority are especially evident in areas of cultural and educational policies, particularly as they impact on education in the Greek language. While Human Rights Watch/Helsinki does not take a position on the specific remedies that the government must provide for minority language education, it is incumbent upon the Albanian government to address the concerns of the Greek minority in consultation with the Greek community, in order to reduce tensions in the region and to fulfill its obligations to promote and preserve the Greek minority’s culture.

In 2019, Member of European Parliament Ioannis Lagos presented a written question to the Commission regarding the persecution of native Greeks in Northern Epirus, a region in today’s southern Albania:

While the Greek government is making concerted efforts to secure the accession of Albania to the European Union, the rights of the Greek ethnic minority of Northern Epirus are being brutally violated by the Rama regime. The Albanian authorities have been mercilessly persecuting Greeks in the area by pillaging their homes, demolishing their churches and intimidating them, and even the Albanian courts are consistently biased against them. This has led to the killing of two Greeks from Northern Epirus, Konstantinos Katsifas and Aristotle Gouma. The oppression of the Greeks of Northern Epirus is so intense that even speaking Greek is a reason to be abused or even murdered, as was the case with Aristotle Gouma. This situation which successive Greek governments have met with cool indifference has caused the Greek minority to emigrate en masse to Greece rather than endure such conditions.

In response to this question, the Commission must explain how it will defend the rights of the Greeks of Northern Epirus and why Albania’s accession negotiations haven’t been suspended until it complies with the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.

A democratic way to resolve these issues in Albania is for the Greeks to be represented in politics at both the local and national level. Albania’s targeting of Beleri resembles Turkey’s targeting and arresting minority citizens for requesting wider human rights and equal political representation. But Albania and Turkey (on a far larger scale) choose to oppress their ethnic and religious minorities, which means neither nation is ready or fit to be apart of the Western coalitions yet. The European Union should thus freeze talks with Albania on the country’s future EU membership until Albania releases Beleri and takes concrete action to help meet the needs of the country’s largest ethnic minority.

In Turkey today, the indigenous Greek community is almost extinct. Turkey’s decades-long persecution against the Greek community (which includes a genocide, pogrom as well as many other crimes and abuses) has led to the death or flight of the community. There are currently only 1,200 Greeks left in Constantinople (Istanbul), a city established by Greeks. 

Albania, an ally of Turkey, should not be allowed by the civilized world to wipe out its Greek community just like Turkey did.