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Albania opposition protesters in clashes outside parliament

Albania's opposition lawmakers throw smoke bombs inside the parliament during the election of a temporary prosecutor general, which they consider to be unconstitutional in Tirana, Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. (Uncredited / Associated Press)
Albania's opposition lawmakers throw smoke bombs inside the parliament during the election of a temporary prosecutor general, which they consider to be unconstitutional in Tirana, Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. (Uncredited / Associated Press)
By Llazar Semini Associated Press

TIRANA, Albania – Albanian police clashed with opposition supporters who tried to force their way into parliament Monday to disrupt a vote on the appointment of an interim prosecutor general.

About 3,000 demonstrators, holding EU and U.S. flags and shouting anti-government slogans, had gathered outside the Albanian Assembly building to condemn the selection of a temporary prosecutor general, which they said was unconstitutional.

Riot police pushed back the protesters after they broke through a security cordon. The demonstrators threw smoke bombs toward officers.

Police said six officers were injured during the clashes. Authorities were working to identify protesters who engaged in violence. They did not say how many civilians were injured, but television images showed a few with minor injuries and a woman being taken away in an ambulance.

Opposition lawmakers also threw smoke bombs inside parliament, but their colleagues managed to hold the vote. They elected Arta Marku as acting chief prosecutor with 69 votes from the ruling Socialist party in the 140-seat parliament. Two lawmakers voted against the appointment and two others abstained, while the opposition boycotted the vote.

Marku’s brief swearing-in ceremony after the vote was held under a cloud of smoke.

“This is the beginning of the popular uprising,” main opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha said before ending the protest.

The prosecutor general is the top law enforcement official in Albania, with authority equal to that of the nation’s top judges. The European Union and the U.S., which have helped Albania draft judicial reforms, support naming someone to the position temporarily.

The judicial reforms, needed for the country’s bid to launch EU membership negotiations, have already started, but a permanent commission to appoint a prosecutor general hasn’t been created yet.

The previous prosecutor general’s mandate ended Dec. 7.

The U.S. embassy in Tirana strongly condemned the violence and urged all parties to show restraint.

“The Prosecutor General who refused to prosecute politicians is gone,” it said in a statement. “The people of Albania are impatient for justice. And the politicians are afraid.”

Judicial corruption has plagued post-communist Albania, hampering its democratic processes. A justice system reform approved last year, aiming to ensure that judges and prosecutors are independent from politics, and to root out bribery, has just started its vetting, checking judges’ personal and professional backgrounds.

The opposition – made up of the center-right Democratic Party, the center-left Socialist Movement for Integration and a few smaller allies – claims the Assembly is not entitled to elect an interim prosecutor general and should wait for the creation of the commission to do that.

Following a meeting with opposition counterparts, Basha said that in the first weeks of January they would hold a big protest and other nationwide protests “while we take the proper political steps at the parliament too.”

Basha’s predecessor in the post, Sali Berisha, who is also an Albanian ex-president and prime minister, mentioned “extermination of the lawmakers’ mandates which means no lawmaker will be a lawmaker anymore.” He didn’t make clear, however, how that would be attempted or accomplished.

Prime Minister Edi Rama, also the Socialists’ leader, blamed the opposition for a “scene that damages Albania’s image at a time when we are at the best moment expecting the launch of the EU membership negotiations.”

Rama was heading to a dinner in Brussels with other counterparts from other Western Balkan countries and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Governing Socialist parliamentary group head Taulant Balla said the commission will be created in a few weeks but “such an important institution as the prosecutor general’s office cannot remain vacant even for a day.”

The Socialists also based their decision to elect an interim prosecutor general on an interpretation of the country’s constitution that they requested and received from EU and U.S. legal assistance missions present in Albania.

Albania, a NATO member since 2009, was granted EU candidate status in 2014 and hopes to launch negotiations next year.

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