By Benet Koleka and Matt Robinson
TIRANA (Reuters) - It took 16 years for Majlinda Andrea to rise to the bar of Albania's highest court, and 50,000 euros in a plastic bag to bring her down.
That was the amount her husband, Odhise, received in a Tirana cafe in July last year to make sure the Supreme Court, where Andrea was a judge, rejected a complaint over ownership of some land near Albania's southern border with Greece.
The challenge was duly dismissed, and last week Andrea, 48, became the most senior judge in Albania to be convicted of corruption by her own former colleagues at the Supreme Court.
The case has become symbolic of how high bribery has penetrated the echelons of power in Albania, but also of the country's apparent newfound resolve to root it out in pursuit of possible membership talks with the European Union before the year is out.
Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama is seeking re-election on Sunday having brought Albania to the brink of potentially the most significant assault on judicial graft since the Balkan state of three million people emerged from communist isolation in the early 1990s.
Shamed and cajoled by the United States and the EU, Albania passed legislation this year designed to end political interference and strengthen the independence of the courts.
Its headline measure is a plan, monitored by a panel of EU and U.S. experts, to vet about 1,000 judges and prosecutors to root out those with money and assets beyond the reach of their modest salaries. Those who survive, and new recruits, will see their pay doubled to 150,000 lek ($1,268) per month.
If the measures are implemented, Albania – already a member of NATO – hopes to open accession talks with the EU by the end of 2017 – a major step forward for the impoverished region but also useful for the bloc itself as it seeks to show it still intends to grow even after Britain's departure in 2019.
"Stopping is not an option," Rama told Reuters in an interview earlier this month. "We have to do it if we want to be part of the EU."
The reform follows years of pressure from the EU and the United States, with Washington wildly popular and influential among Albanians, most of whom are Muslims.
Since the collapse of a massive Ponzi scheme two decades ago devastated the economy and cast Albania into turmoil, the country has struggled to shake off a reputation for deep-rooted corruption.
While some judges flaunt their wealth, others write off luxury villas and apartments as gifts from relatives. Some have been exposed as regularly flying abroad to watch European soccer matches despite their relatively low official incomes.
"I'm paid more than them, but some of them drive Audi Q7s (a luxury SUV) while I have a tiny car that breaks down frequently," said Tirana court reporter Klodiana Lala.
Dispensing with diplomatic protocol, U.S. ambassador to Albania Donald Lu told a conference of judges in late 2015: "You should become the new symbol of the system, in place of the image today of corrupt judges wearing Cartier watches."
On paper, the reform scraps the practice of political appointments in the judiciary and makes prosecutors independent.
"The influence of politics is minimal," Socialist lawmaker Fatmir Xhafa, who led the drafting of the legislation with Western guidance, told Reuters. The reform is not cosmetic, he said, "but a radical transformation".
Judges, however, are fighting back and have filed challenges to the reform at the Constitutional Court, which is still to rule on them.
Gerd Hoxha, the head of Albania's Union of Judges, said the EU was treating the justice system as if it were at "Year Zero". Reform is necessary, he told Reuters, but the terms of the vetting process were too vague and vulnerable to political bias.
The EU's ambassador to Albania, Romana Vlahutin, said the importance of the reform was evident in the "resistance of certain interest groups who are sparing no effort to dilute and weaken it".
Others warn that the new system may prove too ambitious.
"They have created an enormous structure that will be hard to implement," said Kathleen Imholz, an Irish-American lawyer based in Albania.
Imholz defended the U.S. pressure for reform in Albania. "The Americans have a sincere desire to make the justice system better, with a special investigation/prosecution unit on the FBI model and with corrupt people out of the system," she told Reuters. "But it ended up being so complicated their goals are like two raisins in a big pudding."
Andrea, the convicted judge, was not in court when the judges issued their verdict. As they did so, they faced a portrait of Mother Teresa of Calcutta - the ethnic Albanian missionary made a saint by the Roman Catholic church - offering a "Prayer for the Judges" imploring them to deliver justice.
Andrea, who had pleaded not guilty, was given a four-year suspended sentence and a five-year ban from holding public office. Her husband was jailed for 18 months. Andrea's lawyer has appealed the case to the Constitutional Court.
Rama, who is ahead in opinion polls approaching Sunday's parliamentary elections, has accused his rivals of planning to undo the reform, though the main opposition Democratic Party has pledged to move ahead with it if voted into office.
In a written statement to Reuters, EU Ambassador Vlahutin said the bloc would closely scrutinize implementation, as it considers whether to open accession talks.
"This is not an exercise in ticking a box," she said.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by David Stamp)