Albania reduces charges against ethnic Greeks

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The Independent Online
FIVE members of Albania's ethnic Greek minority went on trial in Tirana yesterday in a case that has deepened the chronic crisis in relations between Albania and Greece. A state prosecutor told the court that he was dropping charges of treason against the five, but that other charges of military espionage for Greece and illegal possession of weapons remained in force.

As the trial opened, scuffles broke out near the courthouse between Albanian policemen and ethnic Greek demonstrators. The Greek government summoned the Albanian ambassador in Athens and protested that reporters and observers from Greece had been injured and arrested in the melee.

The five, who pleaded not guilty, are prominent activists in an ethnic Greek political movement, Omonia, to which Albania's authorities have often displayed hostility. The authorities believe that Omonia receives covert support from Greek political and religious leaders in a campaign to unite Greece with a Greek-inhabited area of southern Albania known to Greeks as northern Epirus.

The Greek government has denounced the trial as a farce and a set-up recalling the judicial practices of Albania's Stalinist period. Greece has persuaded its European Union partners to withhold pounds 18m in aid to Albania until EU experts have conducted an investigation into human rights in Albania.

The prosecutor dropped the treason charges on the grounds that they were derived from the penal code in force under communism. He said the treason articles, which carry a maximum death penalty, were expected to be revised by Albania's parliament.

The five accused are Theodhori Bezhani, Panajot Marto, Vangjel Papakristo, Kosta Qirjako and Irakli Sirma. They were arrested after an incident near the Greek-Albanian border last April in which armed men attacked an Albanian army training centre and killed two soldiers. Albania accused the Greek government of launching a cross-border raid, a charge that Greece rejected as nonsense.