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Albanian Gunman's Release Sparks Fury in Macedonia

Government blamed after court frees alleged criminal who took over a whole village for months.
By Mitko Jovanov

Macedonia’s government held a special session on September 1 to discuss how an ethnic Albanian who turned a village outside Skopje into a no-go zone for the police was allowed to walk free, after appearing voluntarily before the courts two weeks ago.

While some analysts have defended the move, saying the government solved a longstanding problem without recourse to violent police action, others fear it sets a dangerous precedent.

Agim Krasniqi and a dozen other armed men have given the government a headache ever since last November, when they took over control of the village of Kondovo, a dozen kilometers from Skopje, effectively turning it into a safe haven for criminals from Macedonia and Kosovo.

The government ignored calls for a large-scale police operation to retake control over the village, fearing it would raise ethnic tensions in the country and mobilise support for Krasniqi.

Police issued warrants for his arrest after he ignored a court summons for hearings over charges that included theft, kidnapping and illegal possession of weapons.

But Krasniqi remained defiant, warning that if the police approached the village he would retaliate against Skopje itself with bombs and explosives.

At the same time, an Albanian politician told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR, that Krasniqi had contacted Albanian officials, seeking guarantees of a fair trial if he surrendered.

In July, President Branko Crvenkovski called a session of the National Security Council to discuss the situation in Kondovo. The council then gave a green light for the police to bring Krasniqi to justice.

But in what appeared to be the result of an amnesty deal, Krasniqi voluntarily showed up in front of an investigative judge on August 18.

The judge decided that this action constituted a sufficient guarantee that he would be available for the courts during the course of the judicial process. As a result, they withdrew the arrest warrant and decided not to detain him.

The court’s decision to free him drew heavy criticism from both the president and the opposition parties.

They accused the government of giving into the demands of its Albanian coalition partners and of putting pressure on the courts to free Krasniqi.

“Considering the serious crimes that Krasniqi and his group are charged with, suspicion and revulsion over the prosecution’s moves are understandable,” Crvenkovski said on August 26.

The president noted that the decision sharply contrasted with the call of the Security Council on July 14 for the police to arrest Krasniqi.

The nationalist opposition parties echoed these complaints. Nikola Gruevski, leader of VMRO DPMNE, said he was convinced there had been a deal to release Krasniqi, warning that such a move would only encourage other criminals.

As a result of this precedent, he said, the events in the village “might be repeated in the future, creating the same problems all over again”.

The government insists it had nothing to do with the court decision and maintains that it applied no pressure on the judiciary.

Amid heavy criticism and rumors of an amnesty for Krasniqi, the public prosecutor’s office earlier this week also publicly denied offering any amnesty. “None of the charges or requests for charges against Krasniqi have been dropped,” it said.

But many analysts and law professors remain convinced that the government had a say in the case, in spite of its denials in public.

“The judge had every reasons to order custody for Krasniqi,” Vlado Kambovski, a law professor, told BCR, adding that he could not comprehend the judge’s decision.

Gordan Kalajdziev, another law professor, agreed, arguing that a political deal had obviously taken place.

“There are cases when the prosecution demands detention for people charged with stealing 50 euro,” he said. “No judge of integrity would allow someone facing these kinds of charges to remain at liberty.”

Others defend the court, looking at what they say is the bigger picture.

They believe the court’s action was part of a conscious decision to resolve the Kondovo crisis ahead of an expected decision from Brussels on Macedonia’s European Union candidacy status; at such a time, the country cannot afford to have pockets where the rule of law clearly does not run.

Ljubomir Frckovski, a political analyst, told BCR that the government had decided to let Krasniqi off the hook in order to solve the issue of Kondovo in a peaceful manner.

“The government estimated that it was better to resolve Kondovo through political negotiations,” Frckovski told BCR, adding that the outcome “is provoking a justified revolt among the public”.

Mersal Biljali, government advisor, described the handling of the Krasniqi case as “a brave move”.

“The way things were solved meant choosing the lesser evil,” he said. “Regardless of the public reaction, in the long term this is a positive move.

“The Krasniqi case is not closed. The institutions have shown tolerance but that does not mean he will go unpunished as the process against him is ongoing.”

Despite this optimism, important questions remain unanswered over the Kondovo case.

It is not clear what happened to the heavy weaponry Krasniqi claimed to hold in the village, for example.

And as one cautious diplomat put it, “What are the guarantees that this will not happen again?”

In the meantime, Krasniqi can be seen sitting in cafes in the centre of Skopje. “Anything I have to say, I will say it in court,” he told BCR.

Mitko Jovanov is a journalist with the daily Dnevnik.