May 12, 2018 / 8:37 PM / 4 months ago

Albanian ex-minister to face drug trafficking charges

TIRANA (Reuters) - An Albanian court has ruled that former interior minister Saimir Tahiri should be kept under house arrest and face trial on charges of drug trafficking and corruption, the prosecution office said on Saturday.

Former Albanian Interior minister Saimir Tahiri speaks on the phone in Tirana, Albania October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Florion Goga

Tahiri waived his lawmaker’s mandate and immunity from prosecution nine days ago after EU members pressed Tirana to be tough on corruption and crime when it asked them to endorse its accession talks, which were recommended by the European Commission.

The governing Socialist lawmakers of Prime Minister Edi Rama refused to strip Tahiri of his immunity six months ago, after phone-call transcripts of drug traffickers arrested in Italy suggested Tahiri, a distant cousin of theirs, was their inside man.

A spokesman for the Prosecutor’s Office said they had asked the court to take Tahiri into custody, but a judge decided he was not a flight risk.

Tahiri has denied the charges, saying his only mistake was to have his uncle sell his car to his distant cousins.

“As a simple citizen, relying on the power of my innocence, family, friends and all those who believe in me, I shall face the prosecutors and the court, as I shall deal with the clowns who fleeced the people,” he said, referring to his political rivals.

Just 34 when he became Interior Minister in 2013, Tahiri reformed the police and cracked down on the cannabis business emanating from the lawless enclave of Lazarat in early 2014.

But cannabis then spread throughout most of the country in 2015 and 2016, and shipments of up to a tonne landed on the shores of Italy across the Adriatic Sea, despite Tahiri’s claims police had cut down more plants than ever.

In a major operation on Saturday, police said they had arrested 12 people on drug trafficking charges, members of a group that bartered cannabis for heavier drugs and was active in Turkey, Albania, Macedonia and European countries.

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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