Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Nano Questioned on Arms Smuggling Claims

Albania’s opposition has seized on the transcript of an incriminating conversation that the premier allegedly held back in 1997.
By Suela Musta

Albanian deputies are expected to vote next week on calls to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the alleged role of Prime Minister Fato Nano in an arms-trafficking scandal.

Nikolle Lesi, an opposition Christian Democratic Party deputy and publisher of the newspaper Koha Jone, on November 8 revealed a transcript of a conversation that appeared to link Nano to plans to profit from changes in the law on arms-trafficking.

Lesi’s inquiry call has already gained the support of 35 deputies though it needs 71 votes - more than 50 per cent of the 140 deputies - to approve the establishment of a commission.

Nano has denied the allegations and has himself requested a probe. The attorney general should “launch a complete state-run investigation and legal proceedings for assessment of all elements mentioned by deputy Nikolle Lesi”, he said.

The transcript is of a conversation that Nano allegedly held with Fehmi Avdiu, then head of parliament’s legislation commission, now chair of the constitutional court, in a luxury hotel in Tirana on December 15 1997.

Lesi claims to have obtained the recorded conversation from a foreign embassy in Tirana, which suggests it was the work of western secret service agents.

The transcript quotes the two men discussing the benefits of cutting the 15-year sentences for arm traffickers and weighing the merits of selling arms to Kosovo.

“If the [arms trafficking] law is nullified, doors will open for everything and we can close them when we like,” Avdiu is quoted as saying, to which Nano allegedly replied, “Then I call this a done deal.”

Although the claims have not been confirmed or proven, they have thrown the prime minister onto the defensive and caused a major political stir.

Nano and Lesi have been at odds for some time. Lesi’s paper, Koha Jone, has accused Nano’s wife, Xhoana, of links to the Greek secret service, prior to her marriage to Nano in 2001. She lived and worked in Greece for several years.

After Xhoana Nano filed legal charges against the paper and its publisher, Lesi, for slander, the supreme court recommended that parliament strip Lesi of his parliamentary immunity, leaving him eligible for a fine or even a jail term.

International media organisations, such as the International Federation of Journalists, have condemned the court decision as a politically-inspired attempt to put pressure on the press and curb free speach.

The human rights organisation Article XIX send a letter to Nano on May 17, saying the Lesi case highlighted an “atmosphere of intimidation which has been generated by your defamation suit against a journalist who criticised your conduct”.

The move to strip Lesi of his immunity failed narrowly, when only 62 deputies - well under half of the 137 present - voted in favour,.

Lesi used the same session on November 8 to reveal the transcript and read out the alleged conversation between Nano and Avdiu.

Nano’s spokesperson, Aldrin Dalipi, dismissed the contents as fabricated, saying the premier had been on an official trip to Great Britain on December 15-18 when the alleged conversation was recorded in Tirana.

Nano himself called the document a “poorly arranged lie that threatens the stability of the country” suggesting that his Socialist Party rival, former prime minister Ilir Meta and the opposition leader, Sali Berisha, were the real figures behind the acusations.

Lesi stands by the document, however, insisting the discrepancy over dates is explicable. The dating of the document indicated not the day the conversation was recorded, he said, but the date when the transcript was made.

“The prime minister’s alibi that he was in London on that day has nothing to do with the veracity of the recording,” Lesi said.

Meanwhile, Avdiu says Lesi fabricated the document to attack the prime minister and himself. Avdiu said the laws on arms trafficking had been amended because they were anti-constitutional, not because the government hoped to profit from any changes.

The Socialist-led government changed Albania’s anti-trafficking laws when it took power following a wave of riots that swept out Berisha’s government in 1997. Prison terms for arms traffickers and people who illegally possessed weapons were cut.

Berisha says it is up to the premier to disprove Lesi’s charges.

“The prime minister has not provided a single argument to prove that this meeting [with Avdiu] did not take place,” he told journalists on November 12. He suggested international experts might take part in a future parliamentary investigation.

Some political analysts say the affair over the transcript has inflicted serious political damage on Nano and to state institutions.

Andi Bushati, editor of Klan magazine, said Nano had failed to dispel public suspicions that the alleged meeting with Avdiu did, in fact, take place.

“The arguments provided by the prime minister and Avdiu are not strong,” Bushati said. The fact that Nano reacted “with so much tension” to a document he has dismissed as a lie only fed such suspicions, the editor said in a TV debate on November 11.

Mustafa Nano, an independent analyst (not relation of the prime minister), said the government appeared spooked by the production of the transcript.

“The prime minister and his closest people can hardly hide their panic and are only half-heartedly calling for responsible institutions to investigate,” the analyst said.

“The attorney general’s office should find out the truth and show it means business and is really an independent institution,” he added.

Irrespective of parliament’s own inquiry, the attorney general, Theodhori Sollaku, has asked the national intelligence service to investigate if the transcript is authentic.

The man who made the transcript, Sokol Kociu, a former police officer now in jail for drug trafficking, whose signature is visible on the document, has insisted from prison that the document is authentic. Kociu said he would testify in a parliamentary inquiry.

Lesi is now attempting to get the requisite number of deputies’ signatures to force parliament to put the whole affair under the microscope.

“Parliament is the only institution with the credibility and impartiality to find out the truth,” he told IWPR.

Suela Musta is a journalist for Top Albania Radio in Tirana.

More IWPR's Global Voices