By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - Thousands of opposition supporters denounced Albania's government at a protest rally on Monday in a move likely to deepen a row between the country's president and the socialist administration over judicial reforms sought by the West.
Some 8,000 supporters cheered President Ilir Meta when he accused Prime Minister Edi Rama's government of enacting a "coup d'etat" against the constitution and of having ties to organised crime.
In a process monitored by European and U.S. experts, Albania is vetting 850 judges and prosecutors to try to identify and kick out corrupt members of the judiciary.
The European Union has told Albania the reforms must remain a top priority if it wants to join the bloc and the judiciary should have teeth in the fight against corruption and crime.
So far, most Supreme and Constitutional Court judges have been fired, prompting many Albanians to say they were right to view the judiciary as corrupt. However, the opposition says the government is trying to exert undue control over the reformed judicial system.
While filling vacancies for the Constitutional Court, the Socialist-dominated assembly and Meta clashed late last year over the nomination of a judge, with Meta arguing that a body nominating judges had tricked him out of his right also to make nominations.
"To defend democracy, my first duty is to lead the fight against the coup d'etat...," Meta told the crowd.
"Death to the coup d'etat, long live the rule of law, long live the Republic."
When Meta in mid-November refused to swear-in a candidate proposed by parliament, the Socialists went on to pass a bill saying a judge could take the oath at a notary public if the president did not receive him or her.
Justice Minister Etilda Gjonaj has said they had followed the procedure to the letter and the "president had created a fictitious cause to serve his own battles".
After reviewing the rule of law reforms by Albania and North Macedonia, the EU's executive said both countries "have delivered further tangible and sustainable results..."
"..and therefore the Commission’s recommendation to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia remains valid," the European Commission said in a statement.
At the rally, Meta signed an official order repealing the bill, although the move appeared to be symbolic, since the proposed legislation now returns to parliament for further consideration.
A parliamentary committee convened by the Socialists has met several times in recent months to discuss the possibility of sacking Meta for cancelling local elections last June after the opposition parties refused to take part. The poll went ahead.
(Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by William Maclean and Lisa Shumaker)