IHF Focus: Freedom of expression and the media; peaceful assembly; rule of law; misconduct by law enforcement officials; protection of ethnic minorities; human rights defenders.
The collapse of the so-called "pyramid" investment schemes in late 1996 and early 1997, which resulted in thousands of people losing their life savings, triggered violent riots all over Albania during which some 2,000 people lost their lives. A massive breakdown of governmental authority and civic responsibility followed. The ruling Democratic Party employed various measures to stem the rioting and chaos. Tens of thousands of Albanians attempted to flee to Italy and other neighboring countries.
The chaotic events could not be attributed solely to the tragic loss of savings, for which the Democratic Party appeared at least partly responsible due to its close links to the "pyramid" scheme companies. The roots of the breakdown of the rule of law lay in the long-standing political disillusionment of the population in the face of the failure of economic recovery. Moreover, the authoritarian rule of the Democratic Party and President Sali Berisha and their control over the electronic media, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary; persistent disregard for human rights; undermining of democracy; corruption and mismanagement played a decisive role in the developments of early 1997.
The situation escalated rapidly, resulting in widespread armament of civilians and criminal mobs controlling several locations, harassing people and looting businesses. Numerous army conscripts left their units to join illegal armed formations. "Salvation committees," which consisted of individuals ranging from common criminals to those sincerely aiming at peace, were formed.
Following an armed attack on the office of the Albanian Secret Service (SHIK) in the town of Vlora, which claimed nine lives and left more than 30 people injured, the Albanian parliament on 2 March passed the Law on the State of Emergency. Despite the escalating unrest, human rights defenders questioned the wisdom of this extreme measure, pointing out that sincere political efforts could have done more to restore peace.
In violation of international law, the emergency law restricted several basic rights. For example, all press articles had to undergo government censorship which resulted in a total information blackout in the press. The law also vested officers loyal to the government with the right to shoot any armed "insurgent" without prior warning.
The Albanian government used the state of emergency particularly to crush dissent. Journalists, political opponents and demonstrators were arbitrarily arrested and ill-treated. The Albanian people were deprived of accurate information upon which to base an objective political understanding and opinions. The result was a chaotic information vacuum filled by rumors, intrigues and fear, and which gave rise to impulsive behaviour and the misinterpretation of events.
On 9 March, under international pressure, the new caretaker Government for Reconciliation under the Socialist Party leader Bashkim Fino was formed, consisting of representatives from all main political parties. The Democratic Party, however, kept control of the crucial Ministry of the Interior. In April, a UN peacekeeping mission was launched. The Multinational Protection Force (MPF) was deployed with a mandate to secure entry points to the country, guarantee the security of the headquarters of the international mission in Tirana and of other organizations, as well as to secure the delivery of humanitarian aid. The presence of the MPF at some of the key points of unrest calmed the situation somewhat. However, the MPF mandate was inadequate to guarantee security in Albania.
At the end of June and the beginning of July, parliamentary elections were held. The electronic media remained under the control of President Berisha and the Democratic Party, offering no possibility for opposition messages to get a hearing through the most important media outlets. On the other hand, the Democratic Party was unable to conduct its election campaign in the southern regions still under the control of militant opposition groups.
The Socialist Party (former Communists) won more than two thirds of the mandates. During the elections, the IHF and other monitors reported some irregularities, such as incidences of intimidation, incomplete voting lists and a few acts of violence including one tragic death. However, these irregularities did not call into question the poll as a whole. Prior to the election, the IHF and the Albanian Helsinki Committee had criticized heavily the politically motivated bombings in Tirana in June as part of a government campaign to justify the continuation of the state of emergency and to intimidate the opposition and indeed the entire electorate.
The government of the Socialist Party was formed in July. The challenges facing the new government and the new President Rexhep Mejdani in restoring the rule of law and returning Albania to a state governed by democratic principles were huge. Although the new government proved successful in putting an end to uncontrolled terrorist activities, violence continued throughout the year, with both sides accusing each other of complicity.
Toward the end of the year, the disputes escalated, particularly following a series of more than ten bomb attacks in Gjirokaster, and the death or injury of a number of police officers in attacks throughout the country.
According to the Albanian Helsinki Committee, under the new government, there emerged a clear tendency toward improvement in Albania's human rights record. This development was characterized by more tolerance and readiness to open discussion with different political groups. Although police violence was still occurring towards the end of 1997, it no longer appeared to be backed by government authorities or to constitute premeditated harassment of political opponents.
The opposition was allowed to operate freely. However, reports were received about dismissals of lower ranking employees in the administration and their replacing with others possessing no better qualifications, suggesting political motives. The general situation in the country still clearly obstructed the realization of human rights; the dramatic rise of criminality, poverty and massive unemployment affected all individuals, as did wide-spread corruption.
The IHF, during its discussions with the new Albanian leadership - including President Mejdani - in September, emphasized the need of the new government to act upon its stated commitment to human rights and its interest in constructive cooperation with civil society as well as to carry out in-depth reform of the justice system. It encouraged Albanian authorities to work toward reducing and eventually eradicating police brutality and welcomed signs of improvements in this regard. It also appealed that police who had committed abuses in the past be held accountable for their actions.
Freedom of Expression and the Media
The 2 March State Emergency Law provided for censorship of the media. The electronic media was already under the control of the Democratic Party government.
The independent press was unable thereafter to operate. On the basis of article 4 of the emergency law, the press was required to submit all material prior to publication to a local body charged with the implementation of the state of emergency. The Albanian Helsinki Committee expressed its objection to the emergency law because it contradicted article 41 of the Constitutional Law on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (March 1993) which excluded any violations of freedom of expression, even during a state of emergency.
The unlawful implementation of this emergency law provision effectively placed a total block on dissemination of impartial information both within Albania and from abroad; for example, the broadcasts of the BBC and Voice of America were temporarily put off the air. The Albanian Helsinki Committee noted that the implementation of the emergency law would further isolate the country, worsen the crisis and open the way to further violations of human rights. The application of the law resulted in a dangerous information vacuum exactly in the time during which the Albanian people, prior to parliamentary elections, needed accurate information to make an informed decision on how to vote.
Independent journalists were harassed and ill-treated. The editorial office of Koha Jone suffered much damage during an arson attack, believed to have been committed by President Berisha's security forces. Access to information coming from abroad was also blocked. When the newly-formed Government for Reconciliation on 20 March proposed the restoration of freedom of the press, the parliament rejected the proposal. With public television and radio firmly under the control of the Democratic Party, there were virtually no possibilities for unbiased news broadcasting.
Under the new government of the Socialist Party, the state television and radio generally provided more balanced reporting. Still, the Democratic Party, now in opposition, complained about biased reporting in the national electronic media.
In late October, some members of the governing board of the state television complained that the television had not equally covered the activities of the opposition. The following negotiation between the two political parties led to an agreement that the broadcast media would devote more time to the political opposition. A commission was set up to oversee the implementation of this decision.
The Democratic Party also complained that journalists of its papers were being harassed and attacked and that attempts were being made to hinder the party from distributing its newspapers.
The new government soon took measures to amend the restrictive media legislation. On 2 September, the parliament amended the Broadcast Law.
According to the new article, the state-owned Albanian Radio and Television (RTSH) would now only broadcast short news items about the president, the government, the governing coalition and the opposition "while also presenting alternative opinion."
On 4 September, a new press law was adopted which replaced the much-criticized, restrictive 1993 law. The new law simply declared that "the press is free" and "the freedom of the press is protected by law." The law became effective immediately.
Although it was important to replace the old repressive legislation, the vague formulation of both laws has been criticized by many jurists.
On 22 August, a coalition of nine Albanian newspapers and magazines proposed to Prime Minister Nano a series of measures to improve the difficult financial situation of the press. They demanded, among other things, the abolition of advertisement taxes and reduction of the VAT and customs fees for imported newspapers and periodicals.
A number of private radio and television stations were operating in Albania in 1997 but there was no clear procedure for obtaining a broadcast license, which allowed room for arbitrary denial of licenses on political grounds.
In early 1997, the Democratic Party government reacted to the uprisings by banning demonstrations and arresting and ill-treating participants. The emergency law provided for immediate investigations against those accused of inciting revolt. In the media, President Berisha and other senior authorities labeled demonstrators as traitors and blamed them for the ensuing chaos.
During the early 1997 events, informal para-police forces emerged. They operated in cooperation with police forces and, believably, with the then ruling Democratic Party. Although operating in plain clothes, they were often even better equipped than uniformed police forces, they harassed and intimidated opposition figures and demonstrators and created an atmosphere of fear.
The new government showed much more tolerance regarding demonstrations by the opposition.
The Rule of Law
The main legal concerns included the lack of a constitution; a corrupt judicial system; and misconduct by law enforcement officials.
Six years after the fall of the communist government, Albania still had no constitution. The country was being governed on the basis of a number of constitutional laws. The attempt of the Democratic Party government to have a new constitution adopted by a referendum in November 1994 had been defeated by the argument that it would have given the president too broad powers. In September, a commission was formed to draft a new constitution.
However, despite pressure both at home and from abroad, the Democratic Party refused to participate in the commission's work and so blocked the whole process.
In the years leading to 1997, the Albanian judiciary had become increasingly corrupt and deeply politicized. The Democratic Party government had routinely fired judges, including the chief judge of the Supreme Court, or removed them to lower posts after they had passed just verdicts in politically sensitive cases. All attempts of the judiciary to bring internationally recognized standards into the Albanian judicial system had been crushed.
The Democratic Party government had also promoted a program under which people with no legal background could become judges after merely undertaking three- or six-month training sessions. In December 1997, a law was passed requiring a university degree from all judges and prosecutors.
This triggered a hunger strike by several judges who claimed that the law was simply a politically motivated decision to oust those judges who had received only the short training.
Albanian law enforcement institutions were corrupt and resorted to various forms of abuses, including ill-treatment of detainees. In early 1997, attacks on independent journalists and opposition members and excessive use of force against demonstrators were occurring on a daily basis.
Soon after this, Ndre Legisi, a Socialist Party leader and former MP, fell victim of a similar attack. The same "para-police" forces also attacked student protesters in Tirana.
Still as of the end of 1997, police forces outside Tirana - especially in northern Albania - remained largely loyal to the Democratic Party, which still had its stronghold in local government. Conflicts with the central government sparked unrest among local police officers in northern Albania towards the end of the year.
An incident in Albanian parliament triggered accusations by the Democratic Party, now in opposition, of politically-motivated attacks on its members.
Hajdari claimed that it was a political attack, but evidence suggested that it was an individual act of revenge. The government condemned the attack, arrested the attacker and charged him with attempted murder. Later Hajdari was involved in an incident in the north of the country when his convoy failed to stop at a police roadblock. An armed stand-off ensued. His parliamentary immunity was subsequently lifted.
Protection of Minorities
The Greek Minority
Following the fall of communist rule, the situation of the Greek community in Albania improved somewhat along with general improvements of human rights. However, the opportunities for Greek-language education, although improved, did not fulfill the expectations of the minority. Ethnic Greeks complained about discrimination in employment in the public sector. The 1992 law on political parties prohibited the forming of a political party on ethnic bases.
Throughout the 1990s, the Orthodox Church had complained about interference in its activities. The Democratic Party government had, unsuccessfully, taken steps to try to ensure that the leaderships of all religious communities were of Albanian nationality. In addition, similarly to other religious communities, the church criticized the government for failing to return property expropriated from the Orthodox Church during the communist era.
The major problems of the Albanian Roma included arbitrary police harassment in various forms such as beatings in public and in detention, and extortion. While relations between the Roma and the Albanian majority population were not characterized by violent racism similar to that in many other east or central European countries (e.g., Bulgaria and Slovakia), the Roma were often discriminated against by municipal authorities responsible for social services, the provision of municipal infrastructure and health care. Such discrimination was often justified as a way to encourage the Roma to "preserve their culture" and traditional way of life which Albanians often professed to admire. Roma men also faced discrimination in the military and Roma children in schools.
The fall of the "pyramid" investments schemes in early 1997 also affected the Roma population. One of the first investment schemes to collapse was the Sudja scheme, which began to fail late in 1996. This was operated by a woman of Roma origin, named Maksude Kademi or "Sudja the Gypsy." She and 18 of her collaborators were arrested on 15 January 1997. Her arrest contributed to the persisting myth seeing the Albanian Roma as nouveau riche although, in reality, Albanian Roma are generally very poor.
While police brutality was commonplace in Albania in general, Roma were even more likely to suffer ill-treatment than ethnic Albanians. Their ill-treatment was also more severe. In addition, entire Roma communities were subjected to collective harassment: the police carried out house searches on the pretext of looking for criminal suspects and arrested individuals illegally. Sometimes the police held family members of a Rom they were looking for as "hostages." Roma property was often illegally confiscated.
The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) noted that following its visits to Roma communities, the houses they had visited were routinely checked by police officers immediately afterwards. Roma individuals were forced to pay to avoid being taken to police stations, or they were taken into police custody, whereupon they (or their families) had to pay to secure release.
Roma were often held in detention illegally and denied legal counsel.
Moreover, the ERRC had information pertaining to the killing of two Roma by members of the police between 1992 and the end of 1996.
The Montenegrin Minority
The Montenegrin minority in the area around Lake Shkodra (approximately 1,800 people) complained about the reluctance of local Albanian authorities to respect their traditional Montenegrin names. Following the collapse of communism, members of the minority were allowed to start using their traditional names in identity cards and other official documents. However, this practice was soon banned by authorities and they were again forced to use the Albanian versions of their names. This resulted in absurd situations in which one person could have several "official" versions of his/her name or where members of the same family had different family names.
In addition, minority members expressed a desire for Montenegrin-language education for their children. This wish was not realized because of lack of funding and support from local authorities.
Human Rights Defenders
In 1996 and early 1997, human rights activists in Albania, including the Albanian Helsinki Committee, were increasingly harassed and labeled by the government-supported media as communists and enemies of democracy. On 20 June 1997, immediately after the Helsinki Committee had visited the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights headquarters in Vienna to report on recent problems in Albania, the organ of the Democratic Party, Rilindja Demokratike, and Albania, a paper with close links to former President Berisha, fiercely attacked the Committee and its members. The campaign intensified following the June 1997 elections and the joint statement published by the IHF and the Albanian Committee about the election process and its outcome.
Following the formation of the caretaker government of Bashkim Fino in March 1997, the Albanian Helsinki Committee was able to enter into dialogue with the new government. On 20 March, the Committee's representatives had a meeting with Prime Minister Fino. In September, the IHF Executive Committee met with President Mejdani, the Minister of State for Institutional Reform, Arben Imami, and other high officials and discussed recent developments and principle human rights concerns in Albania. From that point, the Albanian Committee remained in regular contact with the president, the Council of Ministers and other authorities, including the Ministries of Justice and the Interior, the Constitutional Court, and the General Directorate of Prisons to discuss human rights issues. The proposals of the Committee regarding penal sanctions were accepted by the Constitutional Court and the parliament.