Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Corruption Plagues Albanian Judiciary

The Albanians judicial system is struggling to root out corruption and incompetence
By Llazar Semini

Ali Dima, a long-term political prisoner under Albania's old communist regime, stands outside the main entrance of the Tirana court building, just as he has done every day for the past three years.


"What else can I do?" raged 67-year-old Ali. "This is the only hope I've got of regaining all the properties taken from me by the communists."


Ali spent most of his life during communist rule either in prison or in internal exile in a remote village. The new authorities agreed to return his properties, but the judicial process is painfully slow and bureaucratic.


"You know, sometimes I think it was better under communism," Ali reflected. "Then I had nothing. Now in theory I have much, but trying to get my hands on it makes life harder."


At that point, a judge passed by, took Ali by the arm and steered him away for a coffee. Nothing unusual about that, it seems. Cafes are where much court business is transacted, often with money passing beneath the table from plaintiff to judge. "What do you expect when judges in this country are paid so little, "said an old lawyer.


Inside the court building, people cluster at the doors of judges' offices, talking in loud, strident voices, creating a din which never would be permitted in a stately Western court. Officials blame this on a lack of courtrooms which obliges judges to hold trials in their offices, sometimes two at a time.


The European Union has long promised to finance construction of a new district court building in Tirana where 46 judges now operate. Officials said that seven new trial courts would be added to the building this year with or without the EU money.


"With such a ramshackle infrastructure it's not surprising that proceedings lack the necessary solemnity," said lawyer Dashamir Kore."But it must be said that things are much better now than in the days immediately after communism. Then the courts were in almost total chaos."


In the years following the fall of communism, the whole judicial system - judges, prosecutors and lawyers - was held in low esteem by a public who were very much aware that bribes, not legal expertise, brought victory in court.


Over the last decade or so, the KLD has dismissed scores of corrupt members of the judiciary and replaced them with a new generation of highly trained professionals. In 1997, a new magistrates school was opened, capable of training two dozen judges and prosecutors a year. Albania is one of the few former communist countries where such reform has happened.


But according to the report of the powerful High Council of Justice, KLD, which nominates judges and prosecutors, "Courts, so strongly derided as inept and corrupt, still have many problems."


Problems remain, largely because corruption is so endemic in society, argues


Prosecutor General Arben Rakipi. "That explains why our prosecutors are frequently vulnerable to bribery and threats from criminals."


Crime in post-communist Albania has risen alarmingly, reaching a peak in 1997 when the collapse of the notorious pyramid investment schemes took Europe's poorest country to the brink of total anarchy.


Four years on, the situation is much improved. Many criminal rings have been crushed by the Albanian police working closely with the judiciary. Recently, two Albanians linked with an international drug-trafficking ring were arrested.


In future, conditions for those working within the judiciary are expected to get better. Salaries will rise, infrastructure will improve and international assistance for the training of judges and prosecutors will increase.


Everyone acknowledges that raising professional standards in the legal system will help it combat corruption. "It will take time and we are not pleased about that," said Kore.


Many people cannot wait much longer, " If this goes on for many more years, I'll never be able to enjoy my properties, " said Ali.


Llazar Semini is IWPR coordinator for Albania.