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Investigation 16 May 16

Albania ‘Ignoring’ Suspected Drug Baron’s Greek Arrest Warrant

Greek police documents seen by BIRN shows that Athens suspects an Albanian official and prominent businessman of heading a major drugs trafficking ring – however, Albanian police have yet to arrest him.

Gjergj Erebara
BIRN
Tirana
Some of the drugs seized in Greece. Photo: Greek Police

An Albanian businessman who until last week, also held a directorial post in the regional administration, has had a Greek arrest warrant under his name since Monday May 9.

Klemend Balili, an Albanian businessman and director of Transport Services in the Region of Saranda, part of the Ministry of Transport, is suspected in Greece of financing a drug trafficking ring that has exported marijuana from Albania to several Western countries.

Greek police carried a massive anti-drug operation during the last few days, arresting a dozen people and confiscating about 687 kilos of marijuana that was found hidden on an islet off the coast of northern Greece.

According to the scheme discovered by Greek police, traffickers used speedboats to transport marijuana from Albania to Greece and then created bogus transport companies to send it by road to other European countries.

They suspect Balili was heading the gang.

Since the news broke on Wednesday in the Greek media, Albania’s opposition centre-right Democratic Party has highlighted Balili’s political connections and accused the Minister of Interior, Sajmir Tahiri, of protecting the alleged kingpin. Tahiri has denied the allegations.

Greek media reports also complain of a lack of collaboration and inactivity on the part of the Albanian police in the case.

They have also noted the suspect’s political connections in Albania. Greek CNN reported on a meeting between Greek and Albanian police at which an Albanian officer told Greek colleagues that they were unable to carry out an arrest “because of [the suspect’s] very high level political protection”.

Greek police have not identified the suspect by name in their press releases, however, noting only “a 44-year-old suspect”, causing uncertainty about whether they actually mean Balili, named in the Albanian Civil Registry as Kelmend Balili, not Klemend Balili.

Balili has denied the allegations in a quote in newsbomb.al., a news website based in Tirana, claiming they are politically motivated.

Albanian police, meanwhile, have declined to confirm whether Balili was under an arrest warrant and have not arrested him. Officially, the police say only that an “operation is ongoing and due to that, [we] cannot provide more details”.

Documents seen by BIRN show that Balili has been under an arrest warrant in Greece since Monday, May 9.

 
Map of the route used to transport drugs from Albania to Greece. Photo: Greek Police  

“Accused under the law N433/13 “Narcotics” and Article 187 of the Penal Code about Organized Crime and the Article 8 of the Penal Code “Crimes Committed in a Neighboring Country”, accused but nor arrested are three persons, among whom, Klemend Balili [son} of Sabaudin and Naze, born on 20/03/72 in Albania and resident in Saranda”, the Greek police document reads.

Family with political connections:

The Balili family has multiple political connections. The mayor of Delvina, a small town near Saranda, Rigels Balili, is a nephew of the suspect, for example.

Rigels Balili won election last year after gaining 72 per cent of the local vote under the nomination of the Socialist Movement for Integration, the Socialist-led government’s junior coalition partner.

Klemend Balili’s own political connections were also highlighted in a 2015 news report from Ora News, an Albanian television station.

This showed the speaker of parliament, Ilir Meta, head of the Socialist Movement of Integration, along with the Minister of Finance, Arben Ahmetaj,  and Koco Kokëdhima, an important MP from the Socialist Party, cutting the ribbon in an inaugural ceremony for a luxury hotel built by Balili family in the coastal town of Saranda.

During the ceremony, the multimillion-euro investment was hailed as a model example of tourist development.

Following reports of the Greek arrest warrant, a local news website from Saranda questioned the timing of the operation, suggesting a possible Greek plot to damage local tourism and lamenting extensive media coverage of the issue.

In the meantime, Koco Kokedhima, the socialist party former MP that appears in the inaugural ceremony, later stated in a Facebook posts that attempts to link Balili family with his name were purely a smear campaign. “Balili’s were never supporters of the Socialist Party,” Kokedhima said. “Before 2013 [general elections] they were known supporters of the Democratic Party and turned over to the Socialist Movement of Integration after,” Kokedhima claimed.

“Worth hundreds of millions”

Greek police say their investigation into the drugs ring started about two years ago when large quantities of drugs were seized that evidently belonged to the same trafficking ring.

In the first arrest, on January 25, 2014, in the town of Patra, they arrested a Bulgarian citizen and confiscated 451 kilos of cannabis.

In April 2015, they seized about 678 kilos of cannabis on the border with Macedonia. Also in April 2015, police in Bulgaria seized 531 kilos of cannabis.

Greek police closed in last Sunday and arrested five suspected members of the group on the island of Zakinthos in northern Greece and seized another 678 kilos of cannabis hidden in an islet nearby. In Patra, they arrested two more members of the group and confiscated a speedboat.

Meanwhile, Albanians wonder why Balili is still free.

Top Channel, the biggest TV station in Albania, reported that “well-placed sources” in the Albanian police told them that officially, the reason is that Greece had not yet sent a request for Balili’s arrest - and that, although accused of leading a drugs trafficking ring, he “has not conducted any known illegal activity on the territory of Albania”.

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