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Albania: Rough Justice

Corrupt courts and law enforcers fail to grapple with crime and punishment.
By Ilir Aliaj

Albania’s crooked judges and police officers are coming under renewed pressure to clean up their act.

Two recent spectacular miscarriages of justice have made a mockery of government claims that its lawmakers can prosecute and punish without bias - a prerequisite if Albania is to be considered for European Union membership.

Aleksander Kuqo, a 28-year-old gangster from the town of Berat, was sentenced late last year to life imprisonment by an Italian court on charges of murder and the trafficking of humans and drugs.

He escaped and went back to Albania, where he was picked up by police acting on a tip-off from Interpol. However, when his case came up before the local judge in the town of Fier, a group of medical experts testified that Kuqo was mentally ill – and got him off the hook.

The convicted killer was released and hasn’t been seen since – though rumours suggest he is likely to be in Kosovo or Greece.

At the other end of the spectrum is the case of Gazmend Tahirllari, a man from the south-eastern town of Korce, who died in police custody earlier this year.

Tahirllari was brought in for questioning after police received reports from a taxi driver who he’d apparently threatened. The next day, he was dead. At the time, a medical expert from Korce testified that Tahirllari had died from alcohol poisoning, a view echoed by the town prosecutor.

However, following persistent complaints from his family, the legal watchdog authority arranged for Tahirllari’s body to be re-examined by experts in Tirana. They established that he had died from injuries received during custody.

Seven policemen were sentenced to various jail terms last week for their involvement in Tahirllari’s death - but the main suspect, a police inspector, who was tried and convicted in absentia, is still at large.

Both cases were widely reported by a scandalised press, sending the government into damage-limitation mode.

After the gangster Kuqo’s evasion of justice sparked a media furore, the High Council of Justice – Albania’s highest lawmaking body – sacked the district chief prosecutor in Fier and cautioned the prosecutor in the case, Aleksander Tanku.

Analysts who have welcomed these gestures nonetheless believe they are a somewhat hasty response, aimed at foreign officials and the opposition.

They say corruption in the courtroom is a symptom of a greater malaise in Albanian society – lack of faith in the law – and the government’s assurance that it is fighting bias will be ineffective unless it reaches the ears of the citizens.

The Tahirllari family’s response to the sentencing of the seven policemen speaks volumes about Albanian society’s enduring lack of faith in the judiciary. According to the Korrieri newspaper, they threatened one of the convicted officers, “We will kill your son, as you killed ours.”

Most of the country continues to believe that the best way to secure justice is through payment. And in cases where the law fails them, violence becomes the preferred means of settlement.

The view on the street in Albania is that bribes drive the judiciary, and everything - from a court certificate to an acquittal in a murder case - can be bought. The evidence for this is all too visible – judiciary officials own villas and expensive cars that they can ill-afford on their state salaries.

This will have to change if Albania is to meet EU demands to cut down on crime. Although the government has had some success in curbing human trafficking, the production and smuggling of drugs and weapons continues to support a flourishing underworld. But catching these criminals is a waste of time, if they can easily buy their acquittal from the Albanian judiciary.

Experts say tighter, long-term controls over the judiciary are needed to root out bribery and gradually change the public’s attitude to the law.

The spokeswoman for the prosecutor general, Eva Londo, told IWPR, “It is time for prosecutors to be more aggressive towards criminals.”

Justice ministry spokesman Kristo Mertiri backed her view, adding that closer checking of judges’ credentials is necessary. He also acknowledged that the gangster Kuqo’s flight from punishment may not have come to broader attention, had it not been for the media.

The action taken by Mertiri’s colleagues against those implicated in the Kuqo scandal has been welcomed by the United States ambassador to Tirana, James Jeffrey, who called it a “good development”.

However, the judge who released Kuqo, Ilir Dushi, responded with anger to his dismissal on disciplinary grounds, casting some doubt on whether the government’s immediate response to corruption – to criticise and sack officials – will work in the long term.

“Why did they fire me for disciplinary violations and not for corruption? I am a judge, I base my sentence on the documentation presented to me, and the medical report stated that the person was mentally ill,” Dushi told reporters.

Ilir Alijaj is a freelance journalist based in Tirana.

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