Icy grip of fear returns to haunt Albanian streets

Brutal crackdown brings night raids and torture

Albanian authorities have rounded up, arrested and beaten hundreds of young men all over the country, sending some for "special treatment" in the capital, Tirana, and herding the rest into local police stations in a ruthless attempt to scare the restive population off the streets.

In the southern town of Berat and in other provincial towns in the area, the atmosphere is icy with fear. Not only will ordinary people not speak, they will not even sit at the same table as visiting journalists. The towns are crawling with police and with sinister men with short cropped hair and leather jackets who stare at everyone who passes. Only the bravest describe how the police, some of whom are masked, set up roadblocks and swooped on homes at three in the morning.

The repression in progress is by far the most brutal in Albania since the dying days of the Communist regime in 1990. According to the government's own figures, 247 people have been arrested with the charge that they were responsible for the destruction of state property in last Sunday's riots, and 72 committed to trial. In repeated bulletins, state television has announced that the proof against this hard core is overwhelming and they can expect to serve up to 15 years in prison.

The extent of the repression appears to be much wider than officially acknowledged. The Independent has seen detailed evidence of more than 200 people having been rounded up in Berat alone. Of these, 46 have been sent to Tirana, 30 have been released and 120 or more have been crammed into two tiny rooms in the police station.

Those released have all been treated for beatings, and have reported appalling violence and torture. The doctors involved are so terrified that their official diagnoses include such surreal conditions as "axial neurosis" and "toxic influenza". In private, the same doctors say some of the released detainees are too roughed up to move.

Unconfirmed reports also suggest that the latest prisoners, too numerous for the police station, are being held in sewers and underground military tunnels.

The fate of those sent to Tirana is unknown.

With the crisis over Albania's failed pyramid investment schemes entering its final, most devastating phase, the government is clearly terrified of a repeat of the riots that pushed the country to the brink of chaos a week ago, and bewildered about how to prepare its people for the next round of bad news.

This week, the state is supposed to begin compensating people with assets frozen from two of the pyramid schemes, but it is not clear that it will be able to do so. The largest of the schemes still in operation, involving hundreds of thousands of investors and hundreds of millions of dollars, are just a step away from collapse. Their disappearance would almost certainly bring the government crashing down with them.

Berat is the Albanian town worst-hit by the wave of arrests, partly because it saw some of the worst violence last weekend and partly because it is a traditional Socialist Party stronghold that bitterly resents the looming presence of the ruling Democratic Party, which has taken power locally through a mix of intimidation and electoral fraud.

The arrests appear to be targeted at anyone who might try to stir up trouble. Relatives' attempts to locate detainees have proved fruitless.

The government is due to begin pay-outs on Wednesday, but it is not clear if these will be in cash or in some kind of bond or voucher. Either way, a major issue of currency risks triggering hyperinflation. The lek has already nose-dived against the dollar in the past few days.

The authorities are praying that the biggest scheme, run by the conglomerate Vefa, can keep going since the company is the Albanian equivalent of General Motors - if it blows, the whole country blows. But Vefa hasdefaulted on its investment contracts, withholding customers' capital, paying interest in lek even on hard-currency deposits (at a terrible exchange rate), and cutting its interest rate in half.

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