Sali Berisha could end his long public career in jail if found guilty of corruption over an allegedly dodgy privatization – but are the charges justice in action, or – as he insists – political retribution?
On June 18, 2008, Albania’s government, the Council of Ministers, then headed by Sali Berisha, proposed a change to the Law on Sports.
The change allowed the privatization of sports facilities by the families of former owners expropriated by the Communist regime, decades before. The explanatory note for the law said the change would help sports in the country develop to the highest level.
Fifteen years on, prosecutors claim this was one of several legal changes undertaken by Berisha’s government to facilitate business developments in which he and his son-in-law, Jamarber Malltezi, had a financial interest.
Prosecutors claim they jointly secured some 5.4 million euros in kickbacks from the deal.
Berisha was charged with “passive corruption” along with Malltezi on Saturday by Albania’s Special Structure Against Corruption and Organized Crime, SPAK.
The charges sent shockwaves across Albania’s political scene. Malltezi was arrested while Berisha, 79, was ordered to report to police and banned from travel abroad.
Berisha, a dominant figure in Albanian politics since 1992, dismissed the charges as politically motivated, claiming the prosecutors were under the control of Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama.
He said their actions were result of sinister plans by Rama to finally destroy the centre-right opposition and rule without competition.
“Edi Rama thinks that by engaging his prosecution against me and by arresting members of my family … at a moment when the opposition seems more determined then ever in the battle … to re-establish political plurality … and save Albania from this narco-regime … that he can forestall the opposition’s action,” Berisha told a press conference, as officials were reaching him to communicate the court order.
Prosecutors say specifically that Berisha changed laws to facilitate the development of some 17 high-rises and, through his son-in-law, received 5.4 million euros from the developer.
Berisha is accused of changing laws and bylaws and of exerting pressure on various officials to get things done. As result of these actions, Malltezi became co-owner of the development company, without investing any capital in it, prosecutors note.
The 256-page court decision, which BIRN has seen, details the alleged process.
Berisha has countered this by claiming that the process of privatizing the land was started by the previous government, and that several key decisions were taken by the Municipality of Tirana, when Rama himself was the city’s mayor.
He also claimed that his son-in-law was only being prosecuted because he had denounced another corruption scandal, and that the charges were an act of revenge by Rama.
Rama had not commented on the case by time of publication.
The land in question was owned by several families, expropriated under Albania’s post-war Communist regime.
By 1970s, the Ministry of Defence had built sports facilities on the site for its football team, Partizani.
After the fall of the regime, in 1994 the former owners demanded the land back. This was not allowed, however, since it was considered used for public purposes.
The law, approved by parliament, then led by Berisha, allowed the for return of the property only when it was free and in the meantime offered a compensation process, which never happened.
The owners continued to fight over the years to get the land back despite a myriad of difficulties. These included the fact that since it belonged to the sports team of the Ministry of Defence, it was considered a military asset.
Obstacles to privatization suddenly overcome
The formidable obstacles that the former owners, most of them persecuted under the Communist regime, faced over the last three decades to get their properties returned, or get compensated, were then overcome in a fairly short period of time between 2006 and 2008.
This was after they selected Malltezi as their representative and granted him a 3-5-per cent compensation fee for possible expenses incurred in the process of obtaining the property.
Prosecutors note that the state agency handling requests from expropriated owners, which was notorious for its delays, now acted promptly within months to respond to requests, allegedly acting under the influence of Malltezi.
As Malltezi delivered success, the owners finally got back the sports facilities, enabled by at least two changes to the laws put forward by the government under Berisha.
This paved the way for the re-development of the site.
The owners now reached a development agreement with Homeplan, a company founded in 2008 by Fatmir Bektashi, who also owned some of the land by descent. The company obtained building permits in the following years, with Bektashi listed as legally the sole owner.
However, in 2018, the company deposited a contract with Albania’s Business Registry, signed in 2014, in which Bektashi sold some 35 per cent of the shares to Malltezi for a nominal value of 35,000 leks, or about 300 euros.
Prosecutors believe this transaction was a way to transfer undue benefits to Malltezi and thus Berisha as “payment” for the several changes made to laws that had enabled the development.
“The citizen J.M. is suspected, in collaboration with citizen F.B., of committing the penal offence ‘Cleaning the Products of a Penal Offence or Criminal Activity’, foreseen by article 287, second paragraph of the penal code, by being presented as an investor in the works for the construction of an apartment block which he didn’t invest in,” the press release of SPAK reads.
In this way, it added, Malltezi “masked the true origin and obtained a financial benefit of 672,976,832 lek, or 5,420,345 euros, (undue benefit) by presenting it as a legitimate earning from an investment in an economic activity”.
Rising from the rubble of the transition period
Berisha emerged politically during Albania’s transition from a Communist regime to a multiparty democracy in 1992. He became president of Albania that year. He was re-elected in 1996 but had to resign in 1997 after Albania descended into chaos following the collapse of a number of fraudulent pyramid schemes.
However, his centre-right Democratic Party won the elections in 2005 on an anti-corruption campaign after which he became Prime Minister until 2013. He resigned as head of the Democratic Party that year but is thought to still hold the reins, behind the scenes.
In 2021, the US designated him a politician involved in gross corruption. A similar decision was taken later by the UK. He denies the allegations. Currently he is de facto leader of the opposition to Rama, although his coalition lost heavily in the last local elections.
If found guilty of Passive Corruption, he risks being jailed for four to 12 years. Meanwhile, the government, which is mired in its own corruption scandals, seems to face no credible opposition – fuelling anxiety about the health of the country’s democracy.
Source : Balkan Insight