Double standards in Albania's fight against terrorism

On Nov. 7, Albania's High Criminal Court changed the sentences of two Muslim Albanians from prison to house arrest. The detainees, Xhezair Fishti and Medat Hasani, who are Salafists, were arrested in November 2016 by Albanian counterterrorism units on suspicion of planning an attack on the Israeli national football team, which was scheduled to play Albania on Nov. 12, 2016.

These Salafists were two of some 150 Muslims who the Albanian police detained that month. Albanian authorities, who generally regard Muslims with suspicion, conducted mass arrests and closed the borders with Kosovo and Macedonia. They did this so that Muslim Albanian fans could not attend the football match between Albania and Israel and shout anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian slogans.

However, out of the 150 people who were detained, four were singled out as terrorist suspects and accused of plotting to attack the Israeli team. This counterterrorism operation was coordinated along with the Kosovar police, which, for its part, arrested another 19 Muslims with the same excuse. Now a year later, Albania's High Criminal Court has not been able to find any incriminating evidence for the arrests and therefore was forced to free them from jail and instead hold them under house arrest.

It seems that the detention by the Albanian authorities of four Muslim Albanians in 2016 was made based on false Israeli media claims, since now, a year later, no charge has been proven against the detainees.

Since 2014, the government of Albania has been very aggressive in arresting Sunni Muslims and surveilling their mosques and civil society organizations as part of its policies for "fighting terrorism". Pressured by the American administration and U.S. Embassy in Tirana, the Albanian government has changed many of its laws, arrested and jailed dozens of Muslims and imams who "sympathize" with Daesh, confiscated properties belonging to terrorist suspects and with the help of the U.S. administration has put pressure on Muslims in Albania to cooperate and spy on other Muslims and imams who are seen as "potential terrorist supporters". In its fight against terrorism, the Albanian government has been helped a lot by Turkey, which has extradited Daesh suspects to Albania when the government asked for their extradition.

However, while the Albanian government has been more than zealous in appeasing the Americans during their fight against terrorism and cracking down on Daesh sympathizers, it has not shown the same zeal for fighting other terrorist organizations that presently operate or have members hiding in the country.

Two foreign governments have accused Albania of hosting members of two terrorist organizations in the country. The first is Turkey, which has asked Albania to detain Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) members and close their organizations in the country. The second is Iran, which has asked Albania to not host and at least to curb the activities of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian terrorist organization that advocates the violent overthrow of the current government of Iran.

FETÖ and the MEK are terrorist groups as much as Daesh is. These terrorist organizations seek to overthrow the governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran by means of violence and terrorism. Albanian Criminal Code Articles 231 and 265 condemn the participation, incitement, recruitment, organizing, leading and training in terrorism and calls for the overthrow of regimes in other countries. Daesh, FETÖ and the MEK do or have done these things during the past years against many governments in the Muslim world. However, while the governments of Turkey and Iran have demanded that Albania help them in their fight against terrorism, Albanian authorities have continuously failed to stick to their laws and fight terrorism impartially and without bias.

Even though the Turkish Embassy in Tirana and many Turkish authorities have continuously asked the Albanian government to crack down on FETÖ and detain terrorists who abetted the coup of July 15, 2016, Albanian authorities have neglected their duties. The latest example of this double standard was on Oct. 7, 2017, when Albanian border police detained Muhammed Aydoğmuş, a FETÖ suspect whom Turkey had placed on Interpol's wanted list. Aydoğmuş, who was detained while trying to exit Albania with falsified documents after being found to be a FETÖ member, was released and not detained as both Albanian and Turkish law demands.

Apart from his crimes in Turkey, Aydoğmuş had committed two crimes according to Albanian Penal Code Articles 189 and 297, which carry a jail sentence from three to seven years for people who falsify documents and try to illegally cross the border. However, Aydoğmuş got special treatment from Albanian authorities. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a number of Western officials asked Albania to release the FETÖ suspect with the excuse that his arrest was political. The Albanian government and its courts have so far refused requests by the Turkish Embassy in Tirana for his extradition and he is not even being held in detention for his crimes in Albania, as any other person might be.The double standards that Albania displays in its fight against terrorism can be seen even in the case of MEK that Albania hosted on the request of the U.S. after 2013. This organization, which was relocated in its entirety from Iraq to Albania in 2016, now has several camps in Tirana. They run different operations against Iran from these camps and the leader, Maryam Rajavi, and the commanders continuously call for the violent overthrow of the government of Iran. Prominent U.S. senators and officials, including John McCain and John Bolton, have visited Albania over the past months and together with Rajavi and a number of Albanian politicians such as Pandeli Majko and Fatmir Mediu have called for war against Iran.

What Rajavi and MEK does in Albania is exactly what many Salafists were doing in 2013 and 2014. The Salafists were calling for the violent overthrow of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and replacing his regime with their caliphate. Imam Genci Balla, one of the Salafist imams who was calling for the fight against Syria in 2013 has been jailed by the Court of Serious Crimes and condemned to 17 years in prison. He was arrested in 2014 and charged under Articles 231 and 265 of the Albanian Criminal Code. He and many of his friends were charged with inciting terrorism and for calls to take part in military action in a foreign country.

Many Salafist Muslims who followed Balla ask in their Facebook postings why their imam is in jail but the Iranian MEK, which makes the same calls as Balla did in the past, are never charged, but instead honored by American and Albanian politicians. Other people ask why Albania does not extradite FETÖ suspects to Turkey in the same way that Turkey extradited Daesh suspects to Albania in 2013.

The release of Aydoğmuş, who was caught breaking the law, and the detention on false charges of Fishti and Hasani by Albanian authorities shows that Albania has different standards in its fight against terrorism. If one happens to be an Albanian Salafist Muslim, the chances are that they can very easily be jailed on false charges and mere suspicion of being a terrorist, but if one is a FETÖ or the MEK member and are caught breaking the law or even making open calls for a terrorist war against Turkey or Iran, the Albanian precedent shows that they will not face justice for terrorist-related activities. It seems that for as long as U.S. foreign policy is hostile to the country in which one wants to wage their terrorism, Albania will obey and not punish them if they engage in terrorist activities.

This article was originally published by Daily Sabah