Albania's rulers claim no part in money scam

Faced with the nightmare of hundreds of thousands of people seeking redress for the loss of their hard-currency savings, Albania's government yesterday used a combination of repression and legislative reform to try to distance itself from the collapse of three of the country's so-called "pyramid" investment schemes.

A new law rushed through parliament, which acts as a rubber-stamp for the ruling Democratic Party, formally banned the pyramid schemes and threatened prison sentences of up to 20 years for anyone who tries to organise them.

At the same time, more than 100 people were arrested up and down the country - some for their role in the financial scams and others for their part in an anti-government demonstration in the capital, Tirana, last Sunday that was brutally broken up by secret service agents and riot police.

Two of the most prominent pyramid scheme organisers, Bashlim Driza and Rapush Xhaferi, were detained and charged with fraud. Among the 53 people detained for taking part in the Tirana demonstration were several senior members of opposition parties, including the secretary-general of the Socialist Party, Rexhep Meidani, and the leader of the Social Democrat Party, Skender Gjinushi.

Clearly, the aim was to intimidate the Albanian opposition into silence while trying to reassure up to half a million disappointed investors that the government had nothing to do with the pyramid schemes or their failure.

In a country as autocratic as Albania, it seems inconceivable that the pyramid schemes could have flourished without the government's consent. Revealingly, the arrests did not affect pyramid schemes still in business.

The government's action did not deter several hundred people who took to the streets yesterday in the northern town of Shkoder chanting overtly anti-government slogans. "The government should go, we want our money!" they shouted.

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