Fellowship | Human Rights | In-depth | Poverty

Exchanging poverty for prison

By - 10.12.2018

Minor crimes by people in poverty being punished with jail time.

Ilir Boka was on his way to visit his friends in Albania when he was stopped by the border police on January 18 this year.

A warrant had been issued against the 43-year-old by the Suhareka branch of the Basic Court of Prizren, in relation to an unpaid fine of 800 euros. The fine had been issued on June 4, 2015 after Ilir had been caught by the official forest guard cutting trees some four kilometers from his village of Greiçec.

Ilir supports his six-member family, including his wife, mother and three children, by illegally cutting and selling wood. Although felling trees in public forests is prohibited by the Law on Forests in Kosovo and sanctioned with a fine under Article 36, Ilir feels that he has little choice.

The Boka family lives in a stone cottage in the mountainous village 16 kilometres from Suhareka. Greiçec has just 50 households and many inhabitants have already abandoned it, seeking a better life elsewhere. Work in Suhareka is scarce, making poverty the reality for many of the families still living there.

“What else can one do in this tiny village of ours on the top of the mountain?” he asks.

Ilir says he has tried to move away from illegal felling in public forests. In 2017, when grants were being distributed in Suhareka for the purchase of dairy cows for 60 farmers, Ilir says he went to the Municipality and asked to be assisted with two cows.

“In the Municipality I was told, ‘You obtain five cows, we’ll provide you with another five,’” he says. “Where am I to get five cows?”

Ilir Boka, 43, is one of many people living in poverty who have been forced into jail time after being unable to pay a fine for a minor crime committed out of need. Photo: Halim Kafexholli.

The information officer at the Municipality of Suhareka, Reshat Reshitaj, says the Municipality received Ilir’s oral request but could not respond positively because the criteria set by the Ministry of Agriculture for direct grants to farmers within the Direct Payments Program, section 6.3, states the applicant must have five cows in order to obtain funds for additional ones.

The Boka family is officially considered by state authorities to be living in poverty. They receive social assistance of 120 euros per month as no one in the family has official work and the youngest child, Ilir’s son, is under the age of five.

Enver Berisha, social assistance coordinator at the Center for Social Work in Suhareka, says that even with state assistance, the Boka family lives in extreme poverty.

“It is understandable that the assistance they receive is not sufficient,” he says. “Many are abandoning the village. Most of those who remain receive social assistance.”

Ilir says he wants to work, not beg, and that the state authorities are not helping in his efforts. “The authorities find my house only when it’s time to vote,” he says.

Like Ilir, 41-year-old Flurim Krasniqi from the village of Bardh, 12 kilometers from Malisheva, has also received fines for illegally felling trees. By 2016, Flurim had accumulated 2,000 euros in unpaid fines for cutting public forestry.

He mainly fells trees in public forests around the Berisha Mountains and uses the wood to burn limestone in order to produce the liquid lime used to paint the walls of residential houses.

While it’s Flurim’s way of supporting himself and his eight-member family, there are environmental implications.

“This greatly adds to the release of greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide,” says Afrim Hoti, an official at the Kosovo Environmental Protection Agency. The Agency considers the activity to be in violation of the Law on Air Protection from Pollution, although it admits it has not made any measurement of the pollution caused by this activity in Kosovo.

For the entire process of one melting, which produces 3,000 liters of liquid lime, Flurim needs to obtain the limestone extracted in hilly areas, as well as 15 to 20 cubic meters of wood for the required fuel. A lime furnace is also needed at the bottom of a bush-covered hill.

Flurim has built his 3 meter-deep and 4 meter-wide furnace at the bottom of the Gradina Mountain, as the mountain that Bardh village sits on is known. Once it is lit, the fire must not stop and the temperature must not be allowed to drop. Flurim says he lights up the furnace once a month and that he earns a maximum of 300 euros per burning.

Flurim Krasniqi was sentenced to 100 days in prison for failing to pay a fine of 2,000 euros. Photo: Halim Kafexholli.

In November, one cubic meter of wood in Malisheva sold for 40-45 euros, an unaffordable amount for Flurim. Up until the first years after the 1999 war, lime production was the main economic activity for inhabitants of Bardh, yet Flurim is now the only one actively continuing with this work in his village.

In April this year, the Municipality of Malisheva’s Labour Inspectorate brought Flurim’s lime production to a halt as a result of the illegal deforestation. While attending the inspection, Mayor of Malisheva Ragip Begaj promised that all those who relied on this craft for their livelihoods would be offered agricultural subsidies for purchasing stables or greenhouses.

Yet, according to Flurim, the Municipality has done nothing since then to keep that promise, so he has had no option but to resume his work.

Artan Paçarizi, an information officer at the Municipality of Malisheva, says many of the lime craftsmen, despite having been offered agricultural subsidies, do not want to quit their craft. “These people have a long tradition of doing this and it’s hard for them to deal with something else,” he says.

The Municipality has no accurate statistics on the number of people involved in lime production, but Paçarizi says it is practiced mainly in the villages of Novosellë, Ngucat and Bardh.

What Ilir and Flurim have in common, besides cutting trees for wood, is that both men had to endure prison sentences in place of paying fines.

 

When it comes to felling trees, Ilir and Flurim are far from the only people engaged in this illegal practice in Kosovo. According to data that K2.0 obtained from Kosovo Judicial Council’s Statistics Unit, during 2017 and the first three quarters of 2018, a total of 4,332 cases of illegally felling forest trees were registered, out of which 2,617 remain unresolved, while 585 fines and 49 jail sentences were issued.

In the Municipality of Malisheva alone, during the first three quarters of 2018, 53 cases of forest theft were brought to court, out of which 36 remain pending.

What Ilir and Flurim have in common, besides cutting trees for wood, is that both men had to endure prison sentences in place of paying fines because they didn’t have the money to pay them.

The same outcome faces many wrongdoers, who, under Article 46, Paragraph 3 of Kosovo’s Criminal Code, can have a fine replaced with a prison sentence if they lack the financial means to pay; that lack of financial security is often what led to the crime being committed in the first place.

According to the statistics issued by the Kosovo Judicial Council, 852 fines were exchanged for imprisonment last year.

From poverty to prison

In August 2016, after the July 27 deadline to pay the fine had passed, the police went to Flurim’s home to get him and bring him to the station, where he was presented with an option: Pay the fine or go to jail.

“‘Do you know what I work with?’ I asked them. ‘Lime! For me, 2,000 euros is a large amount, unimaginable even,’” he says.

Unable to come up with the money, Flurim was forced into jail time.

His sentence for failure to pay the fine? One hundred days in prison at Lipjan Correctional Center.

“I don’t know whether we were eight or 10 [people in the prison cell], because some would be brought in and others would leave,” Flurim says. “The living conditions were terrible, it was very dirty, the toilet smelled terribly, the hygiene was a disaster.”

Fifteen days later, Flurim couldn’t take it anymore and contacted his friends in Slovenia who were able to help him get 1,700 euros to pay the remainder of the fine so that he could get out of jail and escape the living conditions.

The director of the Lipjan Correctional Center, Arif Beqa, says that there were no complaints reported by the prisoner and that hygiene is now more satisfactory. He adds that in November 2018, only one inmate was serving a prison sentence at the center as a result of an unpaid fine.

“During the visit, [it was] observed that in some of the cells, due to lack of space, some detainees and convicts slept on the floor on old mattresses and without sufficient covers.” Ombudsperson report, 2017.

Minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners are indicated by the UN, which says that the accommodation of prisoners should meet their health needs, with special consideration for the ventilation, heating, and minimum space per inmate, as well as sanitary infrastructure. Kosovo’s Law on Execution of Penal Sanctions foresees these principles, with Article 36 stipulating that each prisoner should have a minimum of four square meters in a shared cell, or eight square meters in a single cell.

Jeton Kabashi, a spokesperson for Kosovo Correctional Service (KCS), which manages all correctional centers in the country, says that in Lipjan the cells are 12.5 square meters for a maximum of two people, and 35 square meters for a maximum of four to five people.

Despite the regulations in place, there have also been reports of overcrowding and substandard conditions in other prisons in Kosovo.

In its annual report for 2017, the National Preventive Mechanism Against Torture (NPM) within the Ombudsperson’s Office mentioned that the Prizren Detention Center was facing overcrowding and insufficient accommodation capacities. “During the visit, [it was] observed that in some of the cells, due to lack of space, some detainees and convicts slept on the floor on old mattresses and without sufficient covers,” the report says.

The center has capacity for 92 inmates, while at the time of the NPM’s visit there were 100 persons placed. The report also states there was a lack of sheets, blankets and toilet paper. These prisoners are allowed to obtain these from their family members.

Shqipe Mala, director of the NPM, says the detention center in Prizren had given the justification that prisoners themselves had requested not to be transferred elsewhere. “They preferred to sleep on mattresses and be close to their families,” she says they were told.

In general, Mala says she doesn’t think there is an overcrowding problem in prisons.

It’s a point echoed by deputy director of KCS Rasim Selmani, who says that overcrowding is an issue of the past.

Deputy director of Kosovo Correctional Service Rasim Selmani says that understaffing and space limitations sometimes prevents prisoners in detention centers from being separated based on the severity of their crimes. Photo: Halim Kafexholli.

According to KCS, prisons in Kosovo have a total capacity of approximately 2,500 inmates. Meanwhile, in August this year, only 1,532 persons were being held.

Fatmire Haliti, a lawyer at the Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT), says that in a number of centers, such as the detention centers in Prishtina and Gjilan, the space is not being used at all in some instances, and only up to 30 percent of it is used in others, due to a lack of staff.

Monitoring organizations are more critical regarding prisons’ hygiene and other living conditions. Mala says that some facilities, such as Prizren Detention Center and Kosovo’s most well known correctional center at Dubrava, face these problems more so than others, although the situation has improved since 2010 when the situation began to be more closely monitored. Last year, NPM recommended that the Prizren Detention Center be renovated.

Additionally, in 2017, KRCT issued a report on human rights in correctional facilities, which describes issues with one of the blocks in Dubrava Correctional Center as “very serious.”

Some of the deficiencies enlisted in the report include “damaged and very old mattresses, very poor hygiene levels and a lack of prisoner uniforms.”

But Mala said that the conditions of prisons in Kosovo vary drastically from location to location.

“If there is a worst prison in Kosovo, that of Dubrava, there is also a best prison, that of Smrekonica [near Vushtrri],” Mala says.

Shqipe Mala, director of the National Preventive Mechanism Against Torture within the Ombudsperson’s Office, says that living conditions vary from prison to prison. Photo: Halim Kafexholli.

The variation in conditions is significant for those individuals who are forced to replace unpayable fines with prison time.

Selmani says that those individuals who compensate the fine with a prison sentence are in most cases placed in the nearest centers. But due to limited space they can also be sent to assigned blocks elsewhere, particularly in Dubrava and Smrekonica.

According to Dubrava Correctional Center’s director, Jeton Memetaj, around a hundred people settling their unpaid fines with imprisonment are admitted every year. In August 2018 there were 20 such prisoners in Dubrava.

Meanwhile in Smrekonica, as of September 2018, about 50 people had settled unpaid fines with imprisonment, according to data obtained from this facility by K2.0; in September, there were 22 such inmates.

Deputy director of the Smrekonica Correctional Center, Muharrem Bajrami says that all the prisoners, regardless of their offenses, work together in the yard from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., while at night the inmates are classified and separated according to their offenses.

But while Smrekonica is generally held up as a good example, as lawyer Haliti from KRCT notes, “Smrekonica does not solve the problem of minor offense convicts, because not all of them are sent there.”

The physical consequence of prison time

Unlike Flurim Krasniqi, many of those who end up in prison don’t have a way to borrow money for their release.

Ilir Boka was escorted by police from the Albanian border to the Basic Court in Suhareka, where he was told he could pay his 800 euro fine in installments. But even that was not feasible given his financial situation. As he could not promise to pay the fine, the sentence was converted into 40 days of imprisonment.

That same day, Ilir was sent to the Prizren Detention Center. He was assigned Wing C’s cell 4, with three other convicts in it.

“It was my misfortune that I went in winter, because it would get cold, especially at nights,” Ilir says. “There were some worn out blankets, some old beds.”

Beyond the living conditions, Ilir faced more serious threats. He says he was provoked and harassed by other prisoners who, in his opinion, were there for more serious offenses. “‘Don’t drop the soap, and don’t say ‘I didn’t know’ later,’ they would  tell me,” he says.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners obliges separation of prisoners based on various conditions such as the nature of their offense, and says that those inside due to unpaid debt should be kept apart from those sentenced to prison for a criminal offense.

Under Article 33 of the Law on Execution of Penal Sanctions, when placing a convicted person in a correctional facility, the age of the person, the type and the weight of their offense, their conviction history, physical and mental health, and other factors must be considered.

When asked by K2.0, KCS would not clarify what offenses the other inmates in Ilir’s cell had been convicted of, with spokesperson Kabashi saying this could not be done without the consent of the parties and the court. KCS does not see the placement of Ilir in Prizren Prison as having been in violation of the above law and says that no complaint has been received.

“There were no problems or reports of irregularities,” Kabashi says. “Until there is a report, [Ilir’s statements] remain only claims.”

But Ilir’s claim of being mixed with prisoners convicted of much more serious offences is not an isolated one.

Another former prisoner, 29-year-old Kujtim Krasniqi from Malisheva municipality, was issued a fine of 205 euros in July 2013 for breaking the speed limit while driving to work in his 1985 Opel Kadett; the construction worker, who supports his family of five, could not afford the fine so was instead sentenced to 20 days in Lipjan Correctional Center in May 2016.

This was permitted at the time, but under the Law on Minor Offences, which entered into force in January 2017 and began being fully implemented this year, unpaid fines for offences such as traffic violations should be compensated through the confiscation of property.

Kujtim Krasniqi was jailed after failing to pay a fine for a traffic violation. While in prison, he says he was attacked with a razor blade in his sleep by his cellmates. Photo: Halim Kafexholli.

It was Kujtim’s first time doing jail time, but he was left with a physical reminder of his stay.

One night, while he was sleeping, he says he was attacked by two of the three other prisoners sharing the cell.

“They cut me with a bic [razor blade], they scarred my entire back,” he says. “They’d say, ‘He’s not here for being a good man; it’s not an issue of a driving fine; God knows what he’s done and isn’t telling us.’”

Kujtim’s parents say their son came out of prison with scars and injuries on his back.

Arif Beqa from the Lipjan Correctional Center says they never received a complaint from Kujtim, although the center does not deny the possibility that the events took place.

But Haliti from KRCT says her center constantly receives complaints from those who end up in jail for fines due to inappropriate placement.

“This category [of detainee] is often placed with inmates [convicted] of more serious offenses and with longer sentences,” Haliti says. “But there are also complaints from those who stay in prison longer, claiming that the arrival of those with shorter stays disrupts their routine.”

In September 2014, after failing to pay a 400 euro traffic fine, the court sentenced a young man to serve 20 days in Dubrava Correctional Center. After just two days in prison, the young man was sexually abused by cellmates.

The separation problem extends beyond the issues involving those who end up in jail because of fines, according to the Kosovo Correctional Service Inspectorate.

Chief Inspector Ylber Topalli says that despite attempts to separate prisoners with major differences in sentences, it is impossible to do so in 100 percent of cases. He says the problem is caused by lack of space if placement depends on the offense and not the total number of prisoners, because there is not an even distribution of types of offenses.

Many more people would end up in correctional centers to pay off fines if the Law on Minor Offences had not been recently introduced.

Mustafa Selimi, a judge at the Minor Offences Division of the Basic Court of Prishtina, sees the replacement of prison time with confiscation of property as “a major evil.” According to Selimi, whether or not to pay a fine is now effectively left up to the will of the citizen.

“The law has brought a chaotic situation in terms of public safety and order,” he says. Judge Selimi thinks that the possibility of serving a prison sentence should be reinstated for minor offenses.

But that situation had serious consequences in the past.

In September 2014, after failing to pay a 400 euro traffic fine, the Gllogovc branch of the Basic Court of Prishtina sentenced a young man to serve 20 days in Dubrava Correctional Center.

After just two days in prison, the young man was sexually abused by cellmates; the other four people in his cell had been convicted of criminal offenses that had seen them sentenced to prison for between three and 17 years.

“The shift staff claims the victim was carried out on a blanket by some other convicts and staff members and sent to the institution’s hospital,” reads a press release by KRCT published in the days after the incident. “After the check-up, the victim, at the doctor’s instruction, was directed to the Regional Hospital in Peja.”

The young man later disclosed on the Betimi për Drejtësi TV show that once harassment by the inmates started, he had asked the responsible officer to remove him from the room.

“The officer told me, ‘They’re joking,’” the young man said in the clip. “Later, after it got dark and no officer could hear, one [inmate] nodded his head to signal the other. One of them got up and held the door handle, the other one… turned me over and threw himself onto me, started to strip my clothes… I started to scream, he covered my mouth with his hand.”

Chief Inspector Topalli says that in this case the institutions acted poorly. According to Topalli, one reason might have been that the convicted person arrived at evening time, but no one is normally admitted after 5 p.m., and the attack that hospitalized the young man occurred two days after his arrival.

Topalli says temporary suspension measures have been taken against three prison guards and measures taken against the perpetrators, who have been transferred to other wards. “One went straight to the High Security Prison,” he says. “There, he committed suicide when he realized that procedures had been initiated for another of his offenses.”

The court has another three cases that include rape in the Dubrava prison awaiting trial from previous years, while it has also accepted one new case in 2018.

A spokesperson for the Basic Prosecution of Peja told K2.0 that the man accused of rape passed away in the High Security Prison in Dyz, near Podujeva; meanwhile, three of the others arrested were indicted for not reporting the criminal offense. A spokesperson for the Basic Court of Peja told K2.0 that the three people accused of not reporting a crime received six-month prison sentences from the court.

In the 2014 press release, KRCT said that such cases could be prevented if the basic criteria for placement of convicts were to be observed. “KRCT has even previously reported on inappropriate placement of convicts in correctional institutions, particularly in Dubrava, where the basic criteria such as the nature and extent of the offense, the amount of punishment, etc. are not respected,” it said.

The victim is currently seeking damages from Dubrava Correctional Center at the Basic Court of Prishtina. KRCT lawyer Haliti, who is representing the victim, says he was placed unlawfully in the cell with recidivists those who have served several prison sentences. “For a fine of 400 euros, you see how many problems and complications have appeared in the victim’s life,” she says.

NPM’s Mala agrees. “The entire managing staff should have been dismissed over this case, including the Correctional Center director,” Mala says.

However, director Memetaj, who was not in post at the time of the incident, says he is awaiting the final court decision from the Basic Court of Prishtina, including any ruling on further suspension measurements for the guards. “I’m not very well informed, but it seems there is nothing there; apparently, it was simulated by the [victim],” he says.

The Basic Court in Peja’s spokesperson told K2.0 that the court has another three cases that include rape in the Dubrava Correctional Center awaiting trial from previous years, while it has also accepted one new case in 2018 (as of September).

Kosovo Correctional Service did not allow K2.0 staff to visit anyone in prison for an unpaid fine in any of the country’s correctional centers, on the grounds that the prisoners themselves refused to meet.

Alternative measures scarcely used

Despite the problems caused by replacing fines with prison sentences, both for the individual and the institutions, alternatives are already available within Kosovo’s existing legal framework.

The Criminal Code (Article 46, Paragraph 5), provides for the possibility of replacing a fine with community service work of up to 240 hours, instead of a prison sentence. Minor prison sentences of up to six months can also be replaced with community service work in the same way (Article 48).

Punishment by community service work, such as cleaning streets, parks, caring for the elderly and other engagements, is done with the consent of the convicted person and represents a less punitive measure compared to imprisonment. However, it is rarely applied in Kosovo.

According to the former prisoners that K2.0 interviewed, this alternative was not recommended by the relevant courts.

According to data released by Kosovo Judicial Council, 73 cases were resolved in 2017 through community service work. The Kosovo Probation Service, which is responsible for implementing these decisions, says that in the first half of 2018 there were 32 cases of substituting fines with community service work altogether, while 71 cases of imprisonment were substituted in the same way.

Prishtina Basic Court’s spokesperson, Mirlinda Gashi, says it remains at the court’s discretion whether or not to substitute a fine with community service work or imprisonment.

“If, based on the case circumstances, it is found that the punitive purpose is better achieved with the substitution of a fine by community service work, then the court does so ex officio,” Gashi says. “However, this provision is not an imperative, just a possibility.”

Once the court decides on community service work, the Probation Service decides on the type of work and the place where it will be carried out by the convicted person.

Kosovo Probation Service has agreements with institutions such as public services and the emergency services, municipal libraries, vocational training centers, regional waste companies, water and sanitation companies, sports centers and other institutions. The work should be carried out under the monitoring of the Probation Service and within a period determined by the court.

However, according to the former prisoners that K2.0 interviewed, this alternative was not recommended by the relevant courts.

“I didn’t even know such a posibility existed,” Ilir says.

Kujtim and Flurim also say they were unaware of the court’s option to replace their fine with community service. Both say they would rather have done useful unpaid work than go to jail.

Florent Spahija, legal adviser at democratic accountability NGO Kosovo Democratic Institute (KDI), believes the possibility of punishment with community service work would be the best outcome in most instances because convicts could use it to resocialize, work opportunities might arise for them, and at the same time the state gains unpaid labor.

The monthly expenses for a prisoner amounts to 840 euros; as much as the state spends for seven months of social assistance for Ilir Boka's six-member family.

Spahija recommends that Kosovo Judicial Council raise this issue through a circular. He believes that the choice should not rely on the will of the convict but should be decided by court order. “If Article 46, Paragraph 5 [of the Criminal Code, relating to community service work] were applied, the appeal rate would be lower, and the state’s affairs would run more smoothly,” he says.

KRCT agrees that in the Kosovo context community service work would be more humane and appropriate as, according to the organization’s data, 15 percent of Kosovo’s imprisoned convicts are serving short-term sentences.

Alternative measures such as community service are already playing an ever more central role in the criminal justice systems of many Western European countries.

KRCT lawyer Haliti says that Germany, for example, usually sends convicts, especially those serving sentences of under nine months, to resocialization, therapy or alternative service work. “Not to mention the Scandinavian countries, where they are closing the [classic] prisons,” she says.

In Switzerland, based on a Federal Office of Justice in Switzerland document overviewing the execution of criminal sentences, short term prison sentences have been replaced by other measures such as community service.

Even in Slovenia, according to the Penal Code, short term prison sentences may in many instances be replaced with community service work.

‘Prisons were invented for the poor’

Imposing custodial sentences on people convicted of minor offenses is also expensive to the state.

According to Kosovo Correctional Service, keeping one prisoner for 24 hours costs the state 28 euros. This includes daily meals and drinks, hygiene material and telephone expenses. Consequently, the monthly expenses for a prisoner amounts to 840 euros; as much as the state spends for seven months of social assistance for Ilir Boka’s six-member family.

Ilir’s 40 days in prison cost the state of Kosovo 1,120 euros; had Flurim ended up doing jail time in place of all of his unpaid fines, the state bill would have been 2,800 euros.

If the 1,532 prisoners that KCS says were being detained in August is taken to be indicative of an average month, then the state spends approximately 1.28 million euros a month on prisoners, without counting medical expenses.

This year, up until the end of August, the Criminal Execution Office of the Basic Court of Prishtina alone had processed 1,149 cases in which a fine had been replaced with a prison sentence.

KRCT says that Kosovo ranks above countries including Hungary, Russia, Poland, Albania, Lithuania, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Ukraine in terms of its daily expenditure per prisoner.

Mehmetaj, from Dubrava Correctional Center, thinks that this type of expenditure is problematic because it does not achieve resocialization, especially in the cases of short-term prison sentences of 30 to 50 days. As the length of stay is so short, he says that resocialization cannot occur; prison, in these instances, is more a stopgap.

The head of the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms (CDHRF), Behxhet Shala, says this issue was better regulated during the time of Yugoslavia as convicts were often engaged in cleaning the cities.

“Those who don’t pose a risk should not be kept in prisons,” Shala says. “Why eat and drink all day for free?”

This year, up until the end of August, the Basic Court of Prishtina alone had processed 1,149 cases in which a fine had been replaced with a prison sentence. But in none of these cases had a court order for the perpetrator’s arrest been carried out.

In many of these cases, desperate socio-economic circumstances is forcing struggling individuals living in poverty to take the fall for bigger illegal operations.

When Ilir was stopped by the forest guard and later fined, he was working for a company that he says paid him 12 euros per day. But he told the court he needed the trees for himself and still refuses to reveal the name of the company he was working for.

“It’s pointless…,” he says. “He [the owner of the company] has found me a job.”

KDI’s legal adviser, Spahija, has monitored many court hearings over the years, and says that there are numerous cases such as Ilir’s in which workers have been imprisoned for cutting trees while covering for larger illegal foresting operations.

“There are times when the court imposes harsh penalties for cutting the forests, but also pleads with the defendants to disclose the names of companies when large quantities are cut,” he says.

According to Spahija, the defendants know that if they were to disclose the companies, they would become witnesses and would therefore lose their jobs.

“I’ve often monitored sessions like that, meaning a judge or prosecutor pleads with the defendant to disclose the name, yet they insist they were cutting for their own household use, when 20 cubic meters of wood on a truck are at stake. This happens a lot,” Spahija explains. “Therefore, the punishment is suffered not by the company but by the person caught. But prisons are invented for the poor, not those who are well off!”

The impact is felt not only by the convicted individual, but also often by their family, who rely on that person for essential income.

While Ilir was in Prizren Detention Center, in addition to not receiving any income for those 40 days, his family’s social assistance was interrupted for a month as no one else was authorized to sign for its monthly issuing at the Center for Social Work in Suhareka. This is confirmed by the center.

In Ilir’s absence, his mother, wife and children had to move in with their in-laws. They were driven there not only by financial difficulties, but also because they were afraid to stay at night in their house surrounded by forests.

CDHRF’s Shala criticizes the justice system in Kosovo because, he says, those with “strong connections” are able to get away with their deeds; Shala specifically references the case of the former mayor of Kaçanik, Xhabir Zharku, who managed to dodge justice by fleeing to Sweden after being sentenced to three years in prison for the illegal possession of weapons, and that of the former director of Post and Telecom of Kosovo, Leme Gjema, who fled to Serbia after being sentenced to three years for abusing official duties and signing harmful contracts.

Behxhet Shala works to fight human rights violations against prisoners, with an emphasis on increased state responsibility. Photo: Agan Kosumi.

Shala says people relying on social assistance should not be held in jail for minor offenses as their already grave living conditions only become worse. “Apart from the person convicted, the family suffers, too, both financially and emotionally, and consequently human rights are violated,” he says.

The CDHRF head says that the courts and prosecution offices should be ruthless with well-off individuals and companies, not just “the weak.”

“Companies hire workers without contracts, the poor one — i.e. the worker — then suffers,” Shala says.

Legal adviser Spahija says the Kosovo Criminal Code, inspired in many respects by Western laws, should also add preventive measures against large numbers of cases and the current harsh punitive approach. During 2017 alone, over 6,500 cases remained unaddressed according to data provided to K2.0 by Kosovo Judicial Council.

Both Shala and Spahjia argue that state authorities should also help improve the employment possibilities for people living in poverty.

But while the state fails in its duties, Ilir Boka will continue to cut wood while trying to evade the forest guards. Flurim Krasniqi will also continue to cut wood to melt limestone at the foot of the mountain near his village.

They will continue to face charges. And maybe, again, fall victim to the same cycle that repeatedly sees those struggling in poverty taken to prison.K

Editing by Artan Mustafa.
Additional editing: Besa Luci, Jack Butcher.
Language editing: Lauren Peace.

Feature image: Halim Kafexholli.

This article was written as part of K2.0’s Human Rights Journalism Fellowship, 2018.

Back to monograph

Comments

0
Comment

Comment

Lift me up

THANKS FOR YOUR COMMENT

AFTER A QUICK CHECK IT WILL BE PUBLISHED HERE. PLEASE BE PATIENT.

THANKS FOR SUBSCRIBING

THANKS FOR YOUR COMMENT

AFTER A QUICK CHECK IT WILL BE PUBLISHED HERE. PLEASE BE PATIENT.