The 78-year-old leader of Albania’s opposition Democratic Party was punched in the face on Tuesday during an anti-government protest in the country’s capital, video shows.
Sali Berisha, Albania’s former president and prime minister, was leading protesters toward a summit of global leaders in Tirana when a man suddenly broke through the crowd and punched him in the face. Video of the incident shows the man being quickly subdued and beaten. Berisha was photographed soon after with a black eye.
Berisha was leading a crowd protesting alleged corruption committed by Prime Minister Edi Rama, who many blame for a steep rise in the country’s cost-of-living, according to the Associated Press.
In a statement on Facebook translated to English, Albanian police said that the attack was “unprecedented and totally reprehensible.” According to the Associated Press, they had also said that the suspect previously faced charges related to violence and drug trafficking.
After the attack, Berisha made a statement alleging that the man who attacked him is a “criminal police agent,” police said. But they added that the suspect, 31-year-old Gert Shehu, “has never been and is not a criminal police agent from any State Police structure” and has never been used as an infiltrator or information source, according to the translated statement.
In an interview with Euronews Albania, Shehu’s mother apologized to Berisha for her son’s actions, saying he is not affiliated with any political party.
“I don’t want my son’s misfortune to be used by the police,” she said, according to Euronews. “He worked as a motorcyclist, delivering pizzas. He has no friends who deal with these kinds of things. He was absolutely not used by anyone. He has had different problems. He had absolutely no political affiliations. He doesn’t even go to vote. I don’t know why he went to the protest today. I apologize to the man that was assaulted by him, Mr. Berisha. I don’t want a political party to be involved in his [health] problems. I am very sorry that they are dealing with people’s misfortunes.”
Berisha, along with his wife and children, has been banned from entering the U.S. since last year, when the country sanctioned him for alleged “significant corruption,” according to the AP. Berisha has denied the accusations.
Tuesday’s attack happened as Berisha joined leaders from the European Union and other Western Balkans nations for the first-ever summit between them to take place in the Western Balkans region. There, they discussed Russia’s war in Ukraine and immigration, among other issues, and the EU reaffirmed its “full and unequivocal commitment” to the prospect of the Western Balkans joining the international group.