Thursday, May 3, 2018

Albania Ex-Minister Quits Parliament to Fight Smuggling Claims


Saimir Tahiri, a former Minister of Interior under investigation for drug smuggling, has resigned from parliament, saying he wishes to face justice as a common member of the public.

Gjergj Erebara BIRN Tirana
  Saimir Tahiri announcing his resignation as MP in Tirana on 3 May 2018. Photo: LSA
Six months after Albania's ruling Socialist Party used its parliamentary majority to block a request for his arrest on suspicion of drug smuggling, Albania's longest-serving Minister of Interior, Saimir Tahiri, on Thursday said he will resign as an MP, losing his immunity from arrest in the process.

"Up to the day when the whole truth is made known, I will not be an MP but a commoner," Tahiri said in a long speech in which he also accused his own party of betraying him.

Tahiri, 39, was first elected an MP on the list of the Socialist Party in 2009. He become Minister of the Interior in 2013 in Edi Rama's first government.

As minister, he became known for PR stunts and for employing his own camera crew and for choreographing police parades.

His success in cracking down in 2014 on the notorious village of Lazarat, known as Europe's cannabis capital, won him much praise, and analysts started to see him as a possible successor to Rama as head of the Socialist Party in the future.

However, in 2015 he faced allegations of involvement in drug smuggling. Dritan Zagani, a former police officer, claimed Tahiri had ordered his arrest due to his investigation into the activities of the so-called Habilaj gang.

Zagani, who later sought political asylum in Switzerland, claimed Tahiri had given his relatives in the gang his private car, so that they could avoid police checks. An investigation by the prosecution dismissed the claims some months later.

Tahiri was removed as Interior Minister in 2017 but was re-elected as an MP a few months later. However, in October 2017, Italian police arrested one of the Habilaj brothers and their interceptions appeared to confirm a relation between Tahiri and the gang.

Following this, Albania prosecutors asked parliament for permission to arrest him. However, the Socialist Party majority dismissed the request as baseless and politically motivated.

Despite that, Rama has faced increased pressure over his stance on the issue. Last week, when Rama visited Germany, hoping to gain support for Albania to open EU membership negotiations, German MPs questioned him over the request for Tahiri's arrest. It was interpreted in Albania as a possible setback to the country's EU integration hopes.

Claiming to be a victim of circumstances, Tahiri claims he has an explanation for the use of his car by Habilaj gang members, saying he is being targeted by the opposition for his success in fighting drugs and corruption.

"As a common citizen, I will face prosecutors, the courts, justice and the law. I will do the same with the clowns of politics that have stolen this country," he said.

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