Indicted Politician in New Albanian Cabinet

resizer25ALBANIA

The head of the Republican Party, former defence minister Fatmir Mediu, indicted on abuse of power charges over a deadly munitions depot blast on March 15, 2008, is to head the Environment Ministry.

In a coalition deal announced by Prime Minister Sali Berisha today, the Republican Party, which returned only one MP to parliament in the June 28 elections, with a little more than 1 per cent of the popular vote, also garners two deputy ministerial posts.

The March 2008 blast in the village of Gerdec killed 26 people, injured more than 300 and left over 3,000 homeless, and has reverberated in the highest corridors of power.

General Prosecutor Ina Rama filed a case with the Supreme Court in March, indicting 29 people for their alleged involvement in the explosion, among them former senior officials of the Defence Ministry. The charges range from abuse of power to murder.

Aside from Mediu, the indictees include former chief of staff Luan Hoxha, General Shpetim Spahiu and General Zija Bahja. All have denied any wrongdoing. If convicted, they face up to seven years in prison.

Allegations in the local media, based on phone records, have even tied Berisha’s son, Shkelzen Berisha, to the case. He is accused of lobbying for the government contractor that ran the factory to dismantle ammunition in Gerdec. The premier and his son have denied any wrongdoing, and have accused opposition media organs of fabricating the story.

In May, the Supreme Court decided to assign cases involving defendants who do not enjoy parliamentary immunity to a lower court. The Court will solely deal with Mediu’s case, which will resume on September 15.

Although the government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha has promised a fair trial, it has attacked Prosecutor Rama on an almost daily basis for bringing charges against Mediu, a close ally of the premier.

Given that Mediu was re-elected as an MP, Rama may need to seek the lifting of his immunity by parliament once again in order for the case to move forward, and there are no guarantees that the new parliament will vote in favour.

Although constitutional experts say that the Supreme Court does not need to request the lifting of Mediu’s immunity again, few believe it will actually opt to continue the case, due to the huge political pressures attached thereto.

Mediu’s immunity was lifted last time under US pressure on Premier Berisha and parliamentary speaker Jozefina Topalli.

Prosecutors have also filed murder charges against Mihal Delijorgji, the owner of the Alba-Demil company that managed the demolition work at the blast site. Charges have also been filed against site administrator Dritan Minxholi and Ylli Pinari, the former head of Albania’s arms export agency MEICO, which was in charge of supervising the demolition work at the site. Sokol Ngjeci, a MEICO supervisor for the demolition site, has also been charged with murder. They have all denied the charges.

If found guilty, the four face between 20 years and life in prison.

Estimates published by the Albanian government say the explosion caused more than €20 million in damage to the surrounding area. According to the emergency services, 400 houses were totally destroyed; 188 were severely damaged; 200 sustained major damage; and 1,600 others were slightly damaged.

The explosions began when workers were moving stocks of old Chinese and Soviet shells stored at the base, a central collection point for the arsenal amassed by the communist-era dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

Albania had been trying for years to dismantle the obsolete arsenal, which was one of the conditions for the country’s successful entry into NATO.

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