Albania opposition boycotts parliament

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania's main opposition Democratic party has boycotted parliament in their street protest calling for free and fair elections.

The party's lawmakers did not attend Thursday's Assembly session, despite calls from the international community.

Their boycott threatens to block a judicial reform bill set as Albania's main step toward launching of membership negotiations with the European Union. The legislation seeks to root out bribery and ensure that judges and prosecutors are independent from politics.

Since Saturday, the Democrats have blocked the main boulevard in Tirana, the capital, saying they don't trust the left-wing government to hold the June 18 parliamentary elections fairly and want a caretaker cabinet instead.

Speaking in parliament, empty on the Democrats' side, Prime Minister Edi Rama said Europe has made it clear that launching the judicial reform by vetting 800 judges and prosecutors was the only precondition on launching the membership talks.

The vetting bodies expected to be created next week will check the judges' and prosecutors' professional and personal integrity, including whether their income justifies their properties, thus deciding whether they will be able to continue the job.

"Without the judicial reform starting with the vetting and without the vetting there can be no more economy, employment, foreign investment and welfare because the lack of justice is the strongest enemy for the economy, employment, foreign investment and welfare," said Rama.

In an improvised session at the protest tent outside the main government offices, the Democrats' leader Lulzim Basha said they would vote on the vetting bodies only if its laws were amended.

Judicial corruption has plagued post-communist Albania, hampering its democratic processes and integration into the bloc. The country was granted EU candidate status in 2014 and hopes this year to get approval for launching membership negotiations.

EU and U.S. experts were directly involved in drafting the reform, which was verified by the Council of Europe.

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