Albania former vice PM to face corruption probe

TIRANA Wed Feb 16, 2011 2:57pm EST

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TIRANA Feb 16 (Reuters) - Albania's parliament lifted the immunity of former deputy prime minister Ilir Meta on Wednesday to allow prosecutors to investigate him on graft charges.

Corruption has bedevilled Albania's efforts to move towards membership of the European Union and the probe into Meta will be the highest profile investigation in the NATO member state.

Brussels last year refused to give Albania candidate status, urging Tirana to first tackle corruption, the lack of a proper democratic culture and rule of law, and has called for an investigation into the allegations against Meta.

With a 128 votes in favour from both the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition, parliament gave Prosecutor General Ina Rama the green light to investigate Meta based on a video appearing to show him lobbying for favours.

Meta resigned on Jan. 14 after release of the footage, which was taped by Dritan Prifti, Meta's foreunner as economy minister. [ID:nLDE70D1AQ]

Meta told parliament the version shown on television had been manipulated by the opposition Socialist Party: "I am surprised to see the prosecutor's office has been used as an instrument of politics because it (its request) comes here without any evidence and only one witness."

Four protesters were shot dead last month during a pitched battle between security forces and demonstrators demanding the government resign over the corruption scandal.

Prosecutors are also seeking the lifting of Prifti's immunity over a separate video, retrieved from his laptop by a U.S. expert. It shows him and his deputy economy minister dividing up 70,000 euros.

Prifti, a former deputy chairman of Meta's Socialist Integration Movement (SIM) party, said he had filmed the second video to show he was being blackmailed into breaking the law.

The Democrats, who won a second four-year mandate in 2009 with the narrowest margin since Albania toppled communism, rely on the SIM for their four-seat majority in the 140-seat parliament. (Reporting by Benet Koleka, editing by Jon Boyle)

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