The former Albanian interior minister Saimir Tahiri has resigned as an MP, losing his political immunity and exposing himself to arrest on charges of drug smuggling. Tahiri, who was a close ally of Prime Minister Edi Rama, made the announcement at a press conference in the Albanian capital Tirana on Thursday.
In a rambling speech in front of the media Tahiri accused his own party of betraying him and the US and EU ambassadors to Albania of interfering in the country’s judicial system. Albanian prosecutors have sought the arrest of the Socialist MP since his name came up in wiretapped conversations among a group of Italo-Albanian gang drug dealers arrested in Italy last year.
Saimir Tahiri, 39, was elected as an MP for the first time in 2009 and became interior minister in 2013, during Edi Rama first government. He made a name for himself in the following year when he tackled the widespread cannabis cultivation in the infamous village of Lazarat. His apparent willingness to get a grip on the problem that had earned Albania the title of Europe’s cannabis capital earned him praise from political observers and speculation that he could follow Rama to become the next leader of the socialist party.
However, shortly after becoming interior minister Tahiri faced accusations of drug smuggling by Dritan Zagani, a narcotics police officer, who during the course of an investigation into the activities of the Habilaj drug gang found that one of its leaders, Moisi Habilaj, who is a distant cousin of Tahiri, was using a car owned by the MP to make suspect trips.
Zagani has since gone into exile in Switzerland after he was accused of abuse of office and passing on investigative information to the Italian authorities. He denies acting improperly and says his arrest was an effort on the part of the government to shut down his investigation of the then interior minister.
Tahiri sold the car to Artan Habilaj, Moisi Habilaj’s brother in 2013 and admits using it again in 2014, but denies ever being in the car with Artan Habilaj or knowing that it was used for illegal activities. This is refuted by prosecutors who say they have evidence that in 2014 Tahiri and Habilaj drove together from Greece to Albania.
According to Italian police, Moisi Habilaj was later recorded on a wiretap as saying that someone named Tahiri will receive 30,000 euro as well as bracelets for his wife and mother worth several thousand, and then a further sum of five million euro the next month. Days later in a follow-up raid by Albanian police in Valona in the south of the country, four tonnes of marijuana were seized and the property owner, Armando Kacerri, who is suspected of being part of the Habilaj gang, was arrested.
Following this, Albanian prosecutors asked parliament for permission to arrest Tahiri. However, the Socialist Party majority voted against removing his immunity, arguing that the request was politically motivated.
On a recent visit to Berlin to drum up support for Albania’s EU membership bid, Prime Minister Rama faced questions from German MPs about the Tahiri case and it is thought that this prompted the move to lift his immunity as it was seen as impeding Albania’s path to joining the bloc.