Former Albanian interior minister Saimir Tahiri has been accused of links with drug traffickers after his name was mentioned in a series of wiretapped recordings revealed by Italian media on October 17.
The revelations have again thrown the spotlight onto the problem of drug trafficking in Albania, an aspiring EU member state that urgently needs to tackle high-level corruption and organised crime if it is to progress towards membership.
Tahiri’s name was linked with two brothers, alleged drug traffickers Moisi and Florian Habilaj, in the tapes which contain shocking conversations between members of trafficking gangs.
Moisi Habilaj was one of a group of Italian and Albanian citizens arrested early this week in Italy on suspicion of trafficking marijuana. Italian media claim that he was the main go-between for big drug traffickers in Sicily.
One of the conversations intercepted in December 2013 between Moisi Habilaj and another drug trafficker, Sabaudin Celajt, showed that both spoke with a powerful politician, Tahiri.
Moisi said “He [Tahiri] has more than us”, while Sabaudin responded that he has only the name [in terms of fame and position], but he does not believe he had more money than themselves, Ora News reported, quoting one of the transcript which appeared in media. Moisi was quoted as saying that Tahiri had made €5mn in one month.
In another conversation, Habilaj said that “€30,000 should be given to Saimir”.
According to Italian investigators, Moisi Habilaj even arrived in Sicily, together with his collaborator Sabi Celaj, in an Audi car that once belonged to Tahiri.
However, the ex-minister has denied all the accusations, saying that the Habilajs are his distant cousins, and they used his name to for their own ends.
He reportedly added that he regretted selling the car to his distant cousin four years ago.
What is most damaging for Albania’s ruling Socialist Party is that the conversations also show the suspected drug traffickers saying they believed Tahiri had used the money to finance the party’s election campaign.
This backs up the frequent accusations from the opposition Democratic Party of links between Tahiri and bosses of marijuana trafficking networks. He served as interior minister in the Socialist-led government from 2013 to 2017, but was sacked in March this year, as part of mini-government reshuffle, as he was constantly under fire because of the alleged criminal connections.
After he was dismissed as minister, Tahiri actively participated in the Socialists’ campaign ahead of the June 25 general election and was re-elected as a member of parliament.
Meanwhile, despite being under investigation in Italy, Habilaj has never been investigated in his home country, and has been photographed many times with head of the border police in the coastal city of Dhermi, Ora News reported.
Immediately after the scandal broke, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama on October 17 urged the prosecution office to launch an investigation to check Tahiri’s possible criminal links.
“We want the truth as soon as possible. What came out of the conversations is disgusting and shocking,” Rama said on his Facebook page.
“I have known Tahiri for years and I have only words of support and encouragement for him as a person of good intentions, skills and integrity. But, Albania and Albanians today want and deserve to know the truth, only the truth and nothing but the truth,” Rama said.
Rama has spearheaded a number of anticorruption initiatives since coming to power in 2013, and an overhaul of the judiciary intended to weed out corrupt judges and prosecutors is ongoing.
The latest accusation against Tahiri forced the head of governing Socialist Party’s parliamentary group Taulan Balla to convene an urgent meeting for October 18.
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