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From Albanian and Hungarian prisons to EU Parliament: Meet the jailed MEPs

Ilaria Salis and Fredi Beleri were both held in jail before being elected MEPs
Ilaria Salis and Fredi Beleri were both held in jail before being elected MEPs Copyright Canva/X
Copyright Canva/X
By Jack Schickler
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Freshly elected Ilaria Salis and Fredi Beleri may prove a thorn in the side of Hungary and Albania, as supposedly political charges raise questions over the rule of law.

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The roster of 720 MEPs elected this week includes two who may be celebrating more than most – as they’re currently under detention for alleged criminal activity. 

Ilaria Salis, of the Italian Left party, and Fredi Beleri, a candidate for the Greek centre-right New Democracy, will soon be heading to take up seats in Brussels and Strasbourg. 

Both seem set to be a thorn in the side of the countries where they were arrested, with both Hungary and Albania facing significant questions over judicial independence. 

“We are very happy about the election,” Salis’ father Roberto told Euronews. “I hope she's free as soon as possible.”

Ilaria was detained in Hungary just over a year ago, and is still awaiting trial on charges of having assaulted neo-Nazi extremists, which she has denied.

After being successful in two Italian regions, she’s now set to be released, under rules which grant MEPs immunity from legal proceedings in other EU member states.

In practice, the paperwork to secure her freedom could take four to five weeks, and she may need time to recover from her ordeal, her father said, potentially jeopardising her ability to take part in opening proceedings of the new five-year term.

Tough conditions

Though she was released from jail to house arrest on 23 May, her conditions have been “very tough”, her father added.

He views the arrest of the anti-fascist activist – in an EU member that has taken a distinctly authoritarian, rightward swerve – as a “totally political action”. 

That accusation of judicial bias is mirrored for Beleri, a Greek national convicted of vote-buying after being elected mayor of Himara, in southern Albania.

“It’s a political arrest ... there’s no evidence, no proof of any crime,” Marin Suli, General Secretary of Beleri’s Albanian party, told Euronews.

“The rule of law doesn’t exist, it’s the rule of Rama,” Suli added, referring to Albania’s socialist prime minister.

Beleri won’t be automatically freed, as Albania is outside the EU – but Suli is hopeful he can start attending sessions after his two-year sentence expires in September.

Beleri has denied and appealed the charges – and Suli says they’ll take a case to the European Court of Human Rights if need be.

Talks blocked

His case was taken up by numerous existing MEPs. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had threatened to block Albania’s talks to join the EU until the issue was resolved, before adding Beleri to his own New Democracy party list. 

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In a Facebook post on Monday, Beleri hailed his win as part of the “battle for democracy” and “European values”. 

“Light always wins over darkness ... the power of democracy can sweep away any coup d'état,” he said. “I will work hard to be useful to my party, to New Democracy and above all to our homeland.” 

Φίλες και φίλοι,Θέλω πρώτα απ´ όλα να ευχαριστήσω τον Πρωθυπουργό, Κυριάκο Μητσοτάκη, για τη συγκινητική στήριξή του...

Posted by Φρέντης Μπελέρης - Fredi Beleris on Monday, June 10, 2024

EU rules are intended to protect MEPs from political persecution – but lawmakers aren’t totally immune from justice.

They can still be detained if caught red-handed – as Belgian authorities say Eva Kaili was, though she has denied wrongdoing in the cash-for-influence scandal known as Qatargate.

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Parliament can also agree to lift an individual lawmaker’s immunity, as was the case with Greece’s Ioannis Lagos, after his far-right Golden Dawn party was judged to be a criminal organisation.

Technically, MEPs can still retain their office even after conviction or imprisonment, but doing the job isn’t always logistically easy.

While in prison, Salis was allowed only one hour of interviews per month, and wasn’t able to carry out a conventional campaign.

After the election, Beleri had to attend a first meeting of New Democracy MEPs via videolink, after obtaining special permission from Albanian anti-corruption authorities, Euronews Albania has reported.

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