Top prosecutor jettisoned as Albania's leader tightens grip
By Nicholas Wood-International Herald Tribune
Published: November 22, 2007
Theodhori Sollaku, Albania's prosecutor general, switched on the television in his downtown office and half jokingly said, "I'm just checking to see if I've been fired." His worry on Monday was only slightly premature.
On Thursday, the Albanian president, Bamir Topi, dismissed Sollaku, accusing him of failing to do his job properly, and not tackling organized crime.
But for critics of the government, Sollaku's dismissal represents the curtailing of one of the last independent institutions in this country - which they say is being firmly placed under the control of Sali Berisha, a veteran politician and maverick prime minister.
Two years after he was elected prime minister, Berisha has extended his grip over institutions seen as crucial to the survival of its democracy. He dismissed civil servants working under the previous socialist government, subdued the media with the threat of heavy fines, and extended control over the central election commission, high constitutional court and the office of the president.
For Berisha his position represents a turnaround from a decade ago, when he was president and the country collapsed into chaos and civil unrest, with the army deserting en masse, prompted by the failure of a pyramid investment scandal in which most Albanians had invested. Berisha, once a cardiologist, was forced to step down as president in disgrace. But in 2005 he returned to office promising to tackle corruption.
Now Albania is seen as stable country, with moderate economic growth, that hopes to join NATO next year. But his critics are growing more vocal, and they say his apparent disdain for the checks and balances of government, as well as evidence of corruption within his party, have put a large question mark over the country's progress. The dismissal of Sollaku also disturbs the critics.
Sollaku's dismissal follows a parliamentary review of his work in which a majority of the members of Parliament contended that he had not done enough to tackle organized crime, and that he had allowed 22 criminals to be released from jail before completing their sentences. Sollaku denied the charges and was waiting for a ruling by the Albania's constitutional court early next week.
A year ago the same court dismissed a similar review by the Parliament. Topi's move on Thursday appeared to pre-empt another ruling.
A legal adviser to Berisha in the mid-1990s, Sollaku has spent much of the last two years investigating allegations of corruption within the government. Prosecutors under his control tried and convicted a bodyguard of Berisha's for the 1998 killing of a Democratic Party member of Parliament.
His office had also began to investigate charges against Ilir Rusmajli, a former minister of justice, who was forced to resign on Nov. 14 after admitting that he had put pressure on the country's director of prisons to award a construction deal to his own brother.
Recently he has led the investigation of an open-ended contract between the government and the firm Bechtel-Enka for the construction of a highway east of the capital, Tirana. No tender was held for the contract, Bechtel was exempt from taxation against Albanian law, and no price was set for the deal, which has escalated from around €200 million, or $300 million, to around €800 million, according to the government.
Sollaku requested Parliament remove the immunity of Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha from prosecution for the role he played in signing the deal when he was the transport minister.
But Berisha has tried to thwart Sollaku's investigation, ordering the police to prevent a search when the prosecutor sent investigators to look for papers related to the deal. At the same time Sollaku says he was asked repeatedly by government officials to resign, and was offered a job as a senior judge, which he declined.
This month he met with Topi, a member of Berisha's Democratic Party, and again was urged to quit his post, he said. "He kept begging me to resign. You could tell throughout the conversation he was under pressure from Berisha," Sollaku said in an interview Monday before his dismissal.
Now Sollaku is gone, many opposition members of Parliament and political commentators have suggested Berisha's grip on power will get stronger. "We are in a dangerous situation where Berisha controls everything," said Mustafa Nano, the presenter of a political talk show.