An Albanian court sentenced former Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri to a three-year suspended sentence for abuse of power on Thursday, but cleared him of the more serious charges of drug trafficking.
Prosecutors wanted Tahiri, who was one of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s closest associates, to be jailed for 12 years on charges of corruption, drug trafficking and forming part of a criminal group. The Serious Crime Court dropped those three charges, but sentenced him to 5 years in prison for abuse of office. The sentence was reduced to 3 years and 4 months due to Tahiri opting for an abbreviated trial, which allows for a reduction in jail time.
However, the court decided to put Tahiri on probation for three years, so he will not have to go to prison.
“The court said that I am not a criminal or drug trafficker and that I am not part of a criminal group, but declared me guilty of abuse of power because I used the same vehicle with some cousins,” Tahiri said after the verdict.
Tahiri’s name emerged during the course of an investigation into the activities of the Habilaj drug gang which found that one of its leaders, Moisi Habilaj, who is a distant cousin of Tahiri, was using a car owned by the MP to make suspect trips.
Tahiri sold the car to Artan Habilaj, Moisi Habilaj’s brother in 2013 and admits using it again in 2014, but denies ever being in the car with Artan Habilaj or knowing that it was used for illegal activities. This was refuted by prosecutors who said they have evidence that in 2014 Tahiri and Habilaj drove together from Greece to Albania.
According to Italian police, Moisi Habilaj was later recorded on a wiretap saying that someone named Tahiri will receive 30,000 euro as well as bracelets for his wife and mother, and then a further sum of five million euro a month later.
Days later in a follow-up raid by Albanian police in Valona in the south of the country, four tonnes of marijuana were seized and the property owner, Armando Kacerri, who is suspected of being part of the Habilaj gang, was arrested.
The lenient sentence has been met with outrage from the Albanian opposition, who have long accused the Rama government of corruption and ties to organised crime.
Leader of the opposition Democratic Party Lulzim Basha called the verdict “shameful”, adding that “justice in Albania is hostage to Edi Rama and Edi Rama is hostage to the crime.”
“There won’t be justice in Albania as long as Edi Rama heads the government, the criminals and powerful will be untouchable, Albania will remain hostage to crime and Albanians will be poorer and jobless.”
The US embassy in Albania cautiously welcomed to the verdict as a sign of the “growing independence of the judiciary and the beginning of the end of impunity for the well-connected” but called the sentence “discouraging given the seriousness of the charges.”
“Those who abuse the public trust and violate the law should face meaningful consequences,” the statement added.
The ruling comes a month before an EU Council meeting to decide if the EU should start accession talks with Albania.