Albanian prosecutors file criminal charges against opposition leader Basha

Albanian prosecutors file criminal charges against opposition leader Basha
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje June 16, 2019

The leader of Albania’s opposition Democratic Party (DP) Lulzim Basha is due to appear in court on June 17 to hear the charges that will be brought against him in relation to a money laundering scandal involving his party and a US lobbying firm.

The case concerns $675,000 of funding given to the DP ahead of the June 2017 general election and was revealed in November the same year by US investigative magazine Mother Jones. 

After the initial investigation, prosecutors said they found elements of criminal activity as the funding had not been disclosed to the central election commission. If convicted Basha could face a prison sentence of five to ten years.

The charges came amidst a deepening political crisis in Albania, after months of opposition protests aimed at overthrowing the government of Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama. The country has been plunged into constitutional crisis after President Ilir Meta cancelled the June 30 local elections, but the Socialist-led government says they will go ahead. 

Russia links alleged 

Mother Jones alleged in 2017 that an offshore company controlled by Russians had sponsored the DP’s lobbying in US in order to destabilise Albania and the Balkans.

Mother Jones wrote that prior to the June 2017 general election in Albania, a Scottish firm named Biniatta Trade, set up by two Belize-based shell companies connected to firms controlled by Russians, paid Republican lobbyist Nick Muzin, a former campaign aide of US President Donald Trump, to lobby for Albania’s Democratic Party in the US.

Muzin reported to the US authorities that he had been paid $675,000 for his three months of work for Albania's Democratic Party.

Biniatta Trade allegedly received a large sum of money from the DP to arrange meetings of Basha with US officials.

The Democrats, which suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of Rama’s Socialists in the June 2017 election, have denied the allegations.

The Socialists, which had been warning of the rise of Russian influence in the Balkans as they try to steer Albania into the EU, won a second mandate with an overwhelming majority.

After being summoned to appear in court, Basha wrote in a Facebook post that charges against him have been brought to distract the public from political crisis in the country. He also claims that the judiciary is corrupt and non-functional.

“PM Edi Rama, using the method of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has decided to open an investigation against me, with ridiculous charges, badly fabricated by his political prosecution,” Basha said on June 13.

“This is the crumbling system of crime and corruption that have to be overthrown. No step back from our battle for free and fair elections,” Basha wrote.

The Democrats in turn accuse Rama and his government of corruption and links to organised crime, and accusation have surfaced against both sides over the conduct of the 2017 election. 

Recently, leaked recordings published by German newspaper Bild appeared to reveal that mafia groups had helped secure votes for the Socialists in the 2017 general election. Bild says Albanian investigators have confirmed the authenticity of the recordings, and Meta has called for a thorough investigation.