One-on-one | Activism

Rina Kika: Activism is inseparable from my work as a human rights lawyer

By - 30.12.2020

Kosovar lawyer discusses her work in protecting the most vulnerable.

The year 2020 will, of course, be remembered for the pandemic — the fears and uncertainty, the lockdowns and restrictive measures, and the countless personal struggles and conflicts we’ve endured as we’ve sought to cope with an imposed lack of freedoms.

However, not even in times like these have the rebels across the region taken a back seat.

They have refused to give up on protesting or speaking out in public, fighting legal battles or various other forms of exercising democracy in practice — fighting for rights and liberties for all. Undaunted, they have continued to challenge those in power, seeking accountability and above all, demanding change.

In order to learn what motivates citizens across the region to take the lead in the fight against various injustices, K2.0 has identified six rebels living around us in the region. They are the people who stand firm against the many absurdities of life in the Balkans and continue the fight, often with the odds seemingly stacked against them and in the face of personal threats and abuse.

Of course, there are many more rebels, as reasons for dissent are endless. But those selected for this series represent a diverse group of individuals and issues; people who have taken one step further, mobilized others and found a way to achieve change in their respective fields.

Rina Kika, K2.0’s rebel from Kosovo, is a human rights lawyer whose name has become well known over the past years for the protection of individuals in some of the most notorious cases of human rights violations. She has successfully represented the first public case of a transgender man who sought the legal recognition of his gender and name change by the state of Kosovo, and the first public case of police officers who were charged for gender-based discrimination.

Kika finished her bachelor degree at the University of Prishtina and holds two additional master’s degrees, one in international trade law from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and another from Duke University in human rights law.

Kosovo 2.0: What was your first case as a lawyer?

Rina Kika: There are two cases that I consider important to the beginning of my work as a lawyer, and later as an attorney: My first engagement in a human rights case and the first time I represented someone for a case before the court.

There are few feelings in life that compare to the feeling of representing a case before the court.

About 10 years ago, Professor Kushtrim Istrefi invited me to aid him in the initial legal research for a complaint he planned to put forth before the Human Rights Review Panel, established by the European Union. It was a case of EULEX failing to initiate and conduct investigations into the forced disappearance of a person in North Mitrovica in December 2000. The Human Rights Review Panel in 2018 found a violation of the right to life, freedom from torture and the right to an effective remedy in that case.That experience taught me that when you work in a field that you really care about and like, you do not feel time at all. One day, I was working non-stop and did not notice that four hours had passed.

The first case I represented before the court was the representation of a pharmacist who had been fired without notice and had not been paid according to her employment contract. This case has taught me that there are few feelings in life that compare to the feeling of representing a case before the court. In this case, the court ruled in favor of the pharmacist, forcing the employer to pay the back salary and the damages.

How do you select the cases that you represent? What are the factors that encourage you most when it comes to picking a case?

I intend to take individual cases of human rights violations that represent a broader social problem. Through this engagement, I aim to challenge the existing system, as well as the prejudiced mentality of the people; to give space to vulnerable groups and to contribute to the general education of the public about human rights. These are some of the things that come to mind when selecting strategic human rights justice cases.

It is not an easy choice, especially due to the duration of court proceedings: The selection of strategic judicial cases implies a commitment lasting many years to one case and one issue. I therefore carefully consider each case in the field of human rights.

When Kujtim [Veseli] was killed by the negligence of the state, I, like many others, was horrified by what had happened to him. Almost a year has passed since I started following his case and I continue to feel terrified and angry in the face of the lack of a proper response, both from state institutions and from the media and the public.

Kujtim’s case is one of the most serious human rights violations in post-war Kosovo. I decided to represent Kujtim’s family because I could not agree with the fact that such a case occurred right before our eyes, without anyone being held accountable and without drawing the necessary lessons lest it ever happens again.

Rina Kika has joined activists in seeking justice in the case of the murder of 11-year-old Kujtim Veseli by representing his family in court. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Also, it is time — or maybe even too late — for us as a society to speak openly about the problem of racism and to confront it. Through my engagement in this case I had the pleasure to get to know many young activists from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities from Fushë Kosova who had organized protests in front of the Police and the Prosecution to seek justice for Kujtim. It is an honor to join my fellow citizens in the fight for equality.

Retrospectively, what are the situations or decisions in life that have made the journey toward becoming a human rights advocate imperative?

During my studies at the Faculty of Law at the University of Prishtina, I was interested in all areas of law and it was very difficult for me to choose the field I preferred. So I decided to choose the field that was considered the most difficult: Civil law. I did a master’s degree in international business law in Zurich and worked both there and in Prishtina for several law firms that mainly worked in the civil field, with a special focus on business law. However, I saw work in this area as limited.

I had no problem putting in hard work for long periods of time, but in the end I felt like I was not doing much because the field I was working in had no potential to make a big difference. Over time, it became important for me to work in a field that — in addition to being interesting to me — enables me to be a part of the changes in society and makes me feel emotionally fulfilled.

I decided to change my focus and specialize and dedicate my work to the advancement of human rights.

The field of human rights is often subject to prejudice in our profession; it is not taken seriously and is seen as a non-essential, academic field. However, I had the opportunity to engage in a human rights case (the case of forced disappearance I mentioned earlier) and I was clear that none of the prejudices in the field of human rights stand true. So I decided to change my focus and specialize and dedicate my work to the advancement of human rights.

As a human rights lawyer, is human rights activism inseparable from your work? For example, the Basic Court of Prishtina decision in the beginning of the year that affirmed Blert Morina’s right to change his name and gender marker in identification documents was not only important to Blert, but also for the all transgender people and the whole LGBTQ+ movement in Kosovo.

There is still much work to be done until human rights are completely fulfilled and respected in the world. My work is not limited to the implementation of applicable laws but also to making proposals for changes in state laws and policies that affect the realization, respect and full protection of human rights in society. I therefore consider that human rights activism is inseparable from my work as a human rights lawyer.

You and Blert went to the same high school. Years later, you became his attorney in a lawsuit against the state. How was this second meeting of yours?

I know Blert from high school. Even then, Blert dressed like a boy and refused to wear the uniform skirt. Many years later, I read an article where Blert had come out publicly as transgender. I was very glad and immediately wrote to him and congratulated him on his courage to come out openly and publicly as transgender.

In what is the first public case of a transgender man requesting the legal recognition of his gender and name change, Blert Morina was successfully represented by Rina Kika. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0

After that, we met again and talked about the issues of the transgender community in Kosovo. We discussed the legal aspects and the name change issue in identification documents and the change of the gender marker. Our conversation naturally led to the question of what we could do together. So, we started planning a strategy for Blert’s request for the legal recognition of his gender identity. On October 24, 2019, the Basic Court in Prishtina ruled in favor of Blert and ordered the Civil Registration Agency to change his name and gender marker so that they reflect his gender identity.

How much does the current legislation protect the rights of Kosovo citizens? Which interventions are necessary?

Two necessary interventions to ensure better protection of human rights in Kosovo would be: Addressing the problem of caseload in the judicial system that is causing the prolongation of court proceedings and the development of state policies and identifying legislative changes through the generation of data by the persons for whom they are developed.

The problem of prolongation is one of the key issues that plagues almost every case that enters the justice system. This affects the fundamental right to a trial within a reasonable time that is guaranteed by the Constitution and also affects any other right that is required to be exercised in the proceedings. Often people are discouraged from filing a case in court when they hear that the procedure can take three to 10 years until it is finally resolved.

There is a need to update and adapt state policies and measures to address social inequalities by generating data from the persons for whom these policies are developed.

In addition, prolongation creates a conducive environment for violations of other rights by public authorities. For example, there are cases when public authorities do not respond at all or refuse requests for access to public documents because they know that it will be too late to appear in court and gain the right they are entitled to.

This is happening, for example, in a large number of requests submitted by the organization PishtarĂ«t, which is committed to environmental protection. This is also happening in the case of Skord Retkoceri’s request to the Kosovo Prosecutorial Council to secure a decision and investigative report from the disciplinary procedure conducted against the prosecutor who was in charge of the Kujtim Veseli case.

Our legislation is quite advanced in terms of human rights protection, especially compared to countries in the region. However, there is a need to update and adapt state policies and measures to address social inequalities by generating data from the persons for whom these policies are developed. For example, one of the key problems in the field of human rights protection is violence against women, with particular emphasis on domestic violence.

Despite the fact that we have numerous state mechanisms that address this problem: We have national strategies and standard operating procedures, an extensive research study has not yet been conducted to analyze the implementation and impact of these state policies and measures on survivors of domestic violence. Most research focuses on interviewing and generating data from government officials handling these cases, but it is imperative that system failures be identified through data generation and analysis of real-life cases of domestic violence survivors.

State officials do not renounce the prejudices they have when they take on an official post, but they take them along when they exercise their duties

In general, we also see this approach in determining state measures and policies for vulnerable groups. It is not enough just to have a public discussion before the adoption of regulations and laws dealing with domestic violence. There is a need for broader research that focuses on women survivors of domestic violence and its challenges in dealing with institutions.

Only in this way can I see that the root causes of inequalities and the failure of institutional protection or an adequate institutional response to domestic violence can be identified. This data could make a valuable contribution to the development of training with public officials dealing with domestic violence cases.

Numerous reports and evidence show how sexism, misogyny and racism often manifest themselves within institutions that are responsible for protecting victims, such as the police, but also within the justice system, depriving individuals of equal treatment. An illustration of this is the lawsuit of Luljeta Aliu last June. You are her lawyer in the suit against the Kosovo Police for gender discrimination. This is the first such public case since the establishment of institutions. How can this be combated?

Racist, misogynistic and homophobic mentality manifests itself in various segments of our society, and the justice system is no exception. In the case of Luljeta Aliu, police officers have gone so far as to invent non-existent dress code regulations, to justify their illegal action for not registering the case of domestic violence that she had gone to report.

State officials do not renounce the prejudices they have when they take on an official post, but they take them along when they exercise their duties. In the case of Luljeta Aliu, we have sued the Police, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and personally the police officers who did not register her report, as well as other officials who have justified this by referring to a non-existent document. It is the individuals who handle the cases on behalf of the institution, therefore we must demand responsibility from them as well. This is a way of fighting the prejudiced mentality, but it must be accompanied by the development of an informed public debate.

It also serves as a way of educating the general public about their rights by breaking the general perception of human rights as something abstract. It is easy to understand our rights if they are explained to us through a concrete case.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.