Albanian Court Convicts Ethnic Greeks of Spying
TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Inflaming tensions between Albania and Greece, an Albanian court convicted five ethnic Greeks of spying and illegal possession of weapons on Wednesday. Greece immediately recalled its ambassador.
Relations between the Balkan neighbors have deteriorated since an attack in April on an Albanian military training center in which two people were killed. Five ethnic Greeks were arrested and went on trial in August.
Greece objected to the trial, which was criticized by human rights groups. It decried the arrests as evidence of official abuse of the Greek minority in southern Albania and promised to retaliate if the five were convicted.
The trial began Agu. 15 in the capital Tirana. On Wednesday, the court sentenced the defendants to six to eight years in prison.
Greece responded by immediately recalling its ambassador, Christos Tsalikis, and said it would send a protest to the U.N. secretary-general and bring up the issue at an EU foreign ministers meeting Saturday.
In Athens, news reports said Greek police and army patrols along the mountainous border were beefed up with more troops and helicopters.
″It is obvious that there is a problem with justice and democratic guarantees in Albania,″ said Evangelos Venizelos, a government spokesman.
Greece has already expelled more than 30,000 of the estimated 300,000 illegal Albanian immigrants living in Greece since the trial began. It has also blocked more than $25 million in much-needed EU aid to the impoverished country, which is emerging from decades of Stalinist rule.
Albania has defended the trial, saying it had nothing to do with the treatment of its Greek minority, which U.S. officials estimate at 8 percent of Albania’s 3.3 million people. It has accused Greece of meddling.
But irregularities in the trial, including harassment of foreign journalists, have tarnished Albania’s efforts to demonstrate its democratic credentials.
In a report last week, the Vienna-based Helsinki Federation for Human Rights accused Albanian authorities of widespread irregularities in the trial and the arrests leading up to it.
The report said internationally accepted rules of due process for the defendants were violated, and that any convictions under such circumstances would lack legitimacy.
The report also expressed concern about Greece’s expulsion of illegal immigrants in the past month.