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Albania goes “all in” on vetting

By - 19.10.2018

Process in the judiciary looks set to be extended to politics.

In July this year, Admir Thanza, then a member of Albania’s Supreme Court stood with tears in his eyes, trying to explain a former conviction for theft in Italy. He claimed he had taken responsibility for the crime to protect his sister-in-law, mother to his 9-year-old nephew, who was receiving treatment in Italy at the time.

Thanza was facing the Independent Qualification Commission (IQC), which since November 2017 has been reassessing judges and prosecutors across the Albanian judicial system. He was eventually dismissed, his failure to declare his conviction in Italy counting against him, as well as reported links to organized criminals, and his assets not matching his financial resources.

Another recently dismissed Appeal Court judge claimed huge amounts of money in his possession were gifts from his retired in-laws who live in the United States. Other judicial officials who were dismissed through the vetting process justified their luxurious apartments and huge bank accounts by saying that they’d taken loans from family members, or even that the money was a wedding gift.

The dismissal of a number of judges has left courts at different levels unable to function, including the Supreme Court, which has been left with around a fifth of its members [the Court has 19 judges, and now it is left with only 3 members and the chairman]. The process goes on, with 800 officials in the judiciary aimed to be screened.

Addressing the high level of corruption

Interventions in the judiciary have always been one of the issues most stressed by the EU Commission in all of their Progress Reports for Albania. In 2014, the Commission’s Progress Report stated that the correct functioning of justice was impeded by “the high level of corruption,” and three out of five priorities set out by the report related to the judiciary. A 2016 report by the IDRA institute found that 76 percent of Albanian citizens believed the judiciary was corrupt.

Up until the first half of September, the IQC had processed almost all of the 57 judges and prosecutors that were set as a priority in this process, with 24 having been dismissed thus far.

In July 2016, the Assembly voted unanimously in favor of amendments to the Constitution that hoped to facilitate a far-reaching judicial reform. Its implementation process is still in the early phases, and is overseen by an International Monitoring Operation (IMO). This assisting structure to the two main “vetting” institutions (the IQC and an Appeal Chamber, with the jurisdiction to review appeals against IQC decisions) can also file findings and opinions, present evidence, or submit recommendations on the issues examined.

Up until the first half of September, the IQC had processed almost all of the 57 judges and prosecutors that were set as a priority in this process, with 24 having  been dismissed thus far. Another 20 judges or prosecutors from across the judicial system have resigned, earning a “free pass” from the process.

“That is a very good result for the Albanian people. And the next phase is even deeper,” said U.S. Ambassador in Tirana, Donald Lu, during a recent TV interview adding that the establishment of the IQC, as well as the High Judicial Council (KLGJ), the creation of the Special Prosecution Office (SPAK) and the National Bureau of Investigation (BKH) investigators “strikes fear in the hearts of organized crime leaders and corrupt politicians.”

Indeed, the first batch of subjects for vetting were the members of the highest courts in the Albanian legal system, and the candidates for new institutions are to be born from the reform.

“It will be a long process, expected to last between three and five years, between re-evaluations and appeals,” explains Joniada Koçi, Coordinator for Media and External Relations at the Independent Qualification Commission (IQC) for K2.0. “But, with the current capacities in budget and staff of our institution, it is likely to go on even longer.”

Chief Commissioner of the IQC, Genta Tafa Bungo, has written several requests to the Parliament for additional staff, including one in June and one in September this year. The current personnel were overwhelmed by the volume and intensity of work, and on Oct. 4 the Parliament approved the Commission’s request to add more staff.

“After the process is complete, we expect to bring a renewed faith in the judicial system that will also benefit the country in many other ways,” Koçi explained further.

An important role in the gathering of information, outside official channels, belongs to Albanian citizens, who can report their own knowledge on specific subjects.

The Commission’s re-evaluation is based on three criteria: the assessment of the wealth, image examinations and a professional skills valuation.

An important role in the gathering of information, outside official channels, belongs to Albanian citizens, who can report their own knowledge on specific subjects. The newly created institutions are obliged by law to check the information received, while citizens are protected by the Albanian law covering whistleblowing. In 2017, there were 334 complaints filed, while the number is considerably higher so far this year.

“So far the process has been very fruitful. However, some people seem a little disappointed,” said Koçi. “That’s because they were hoping for a reassessment of their cases, where they felt these judges or prosecutors acted against the law. If a subject is dismissed by the IQC for failing to justify their wealth, nothing changes for a person who filed a complaint against him.”

The whole process has been closely monitored by the media, and throughout the hearing sessions some notorious stories have emerged, including that of Admir Thanza.

Extending the process

In September, the same re-evaluation process was extended to the State Police and Republican Guard employees.

The “police vetting” has already undergone the first phase, where nearly 12,000 employees submitted self-declaration forms and documentation to justify their wealth accumulated throughout the years working in the force. In a similar manner to the judiciary, about 200 employees didn’t submit the form, or chose to resign in order to avoid the screening phase.

However, after the first phase, the vetting in the police faces a standstill, because of delays with preparing the commissions that will evaluate the 300 highest ranking officials, including heads of the police, chief inspectors, inspectors, etc.. Offices where the 30 members of the Commission will be placed aren’t ready yet, while salaries and other benefits are still to be designated.

The next step appears to be to apply the process to Albania’s political sphere. At the beginning of September, the Democratic Party, the main opposition party, put a bill to the table, which would further extend the process to high public officials, including members of the parliament, the prime minister, ministers, mayors and heads of legal or constitutional institutions.

Although in favor of political vetting, the parliamentary majority has requested an extension to the process that would include screening family members of politicians and evaluating their fortune.

This wouldn’t be the first reform aimed at politicians, as it would follow in the steps of the ‘decriminalization process,’ which has been in place over the past two years. During that time, the process has forced nine MPs to either resign or be stripped of their mandate, while 12 others are under investigation. It’s also had an effect on more than 200 other high public officials, or candidates.

“Politicians connected to crime today make the law, take the decisions, make laws in the Parliament, take decisions in the municipalities and are untouchable. There’s only one way to clean up politics of this new and more sophisticated generation of criminals: vetting,” said Lulzim Basha, the head of the Democratic Party, at a press conference, where he explained the proposed constitutional amendments.

He added that, in order for political vetting to be a successful process, strong pressure from the public, or as he often calls it “civil disobedience,” is needed as well.

With the opposition not participating in the plenary sessions, political dialogue remains tense on the amendments proposed by the DP. Although in favor of political vetting, the parliamentary majority has requested an extension to the process that would include screening family members of politicians and evaluating their fortune. This is something on which the opposition is unwilling to negotiate.

I’d be very happy if we were to check the expenses of the politicians, their families and their in-laws,” said Prime Minister Edi Rama during a TV interview. “Let’s check the expenses of their trips, their accommodation, where they’ve stayed, the weddings, the births, the illnesses and all. And above all, let’s find all the sources of income that have produced fortunes or activities with high or abnormal expenses. I’d be very interested and happy, and let it all begin with my possessions.

Rama went on to insinuate that the vetting initiative from the opposition is just a campaign stunt. The DP’s proposal will be sent to the Venezia Commission experts, an advisory body of the Council of Europe specialized in the field of constitutional law, but the Socialist Party is also likely to propose its own draft on political vetting. Confrontation over which model of vetting to implement seems inevitable in the future.

Despite the conflict, some political analysts in the country, like Afrim Krasniqi, believe there is a genuine chance of making the reform happen, due to the formation of the new specialist bodies. “Only those can, and must mark the beginning of a catharsis and accountability process from politics,” he wrote on Facebook. “Everything else is, and remains, political rhetoric.”K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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