Former Decan judge accused of abuse of office is released, her son is found guilty

An earmarked case for visa liberalization, the abuse of office and bribery case against a Decani judge, her son, and a police officer, ends with a single guilty verdict.

The Court in Ferizaj freed former judge Safete Tolaj from all charges of abuse of office on Friday.

According to the verdict the court announced on Friday, the State Prosecutor failed to prove the allegation that former Judge Tolaj, who resigned her post in November, had abused her office.

Judge Tolaj was indicted of abuse of office last year,  after BIRN’s Drejtesia ne Kosove programme aired footage of her son, Fisnik Tolaj, receiving a bribe in exchange of influencing judicial proceedings.

Fisnik, who faced charges of fraud, exertion of influence, forgery and illegal possession, and use of weapons, was found guilty on all charges and has been sentenced to 4 years and 6 months in prison.

The third defendant on the case, the police officer Granit Shehaj was also found not guilty on allegations of abuse of office, since according to the verdict, the prosecution also failed to prove that Shehaj exercised influence by abusing his position as a police officer.

The Ferizaj Court has refused the prosecution’s request to permanently confiscate an apartment valued at 40,000 euros, which is owned by the spouse of Fisnik Tolaj, Blerina Vishaj. The court has assessed that this property is not connected to the criminal offense, since the amount of this property exceeds the amount that Tolaj was being accused off.

The case is one of the 40 something earmarked cases for the track record of fighting corruption, the last criterion for Kosovo to get a visa-free regime to Schengen countries.

Originally published on BIRN’s Prishtina Insight.

BIRN Albania Film Screened in Hydropower Protest Village

BIRN Albania’s documentary ‘Free Flow’, about resistance to hydropower plant developers, was screened on Thursday in the village of Polis, the first place in the country to protest against the construction of a hydropower plant, which locals say has dried up a vital water supply for the irrigation of their lands.

Their protest in 2014 against the Gurshpat hydropower plant was quashed by local police, a dozen villagers were detained and seven protesters were later convicted and given sentences that varied from fines to six months’ imprisonment.

Gurshpat is only one of the hundreds of small hydropower plant concession awarded by the Albanian government over the past decade, which have sparked an increasing number of conflicts between developers and the state on one side and activists and local communities on the other – over water rights, property rights, lack of consultation and environmental damage.

Data obtained by BIRN Albania as part of a recent investigation shows that dozens of similar conflicts have erupted across the country in recent years.

‘Free Flow’ was directed by film-maker Elton Baxhaku focuses on three areas, the Shebenik Jabllanica National Park, the Vjosa River and the Valbona National Park, and follows villagers, community rights activists, scientists and artists as they struggle to voice their concerns over hydropower plant projects, challenge concession contracts in court and protest in the streets to encourage support for their cause.

Elton Baxhaku is an acclaimed Albanian film-maker, best known for his 2014 documentary ‘Skandal’ and the 2016 documentary ‘Selita’, which was co-directed by Eriona Cami.

During the summer of 2018, BIRN Albania will hold also other screenings in affected communities near the Vjosa River and the Valbona National Park.

The documentary will be also screened in August at Dokufest, the international film and documentary festival held in Prizren, Kosovo.

BIRN Coverage of Srebrenica Anniversary Widely Quoted

The coverage of this year’s 23rd anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica by BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina and BIRN’s regional programme Balkan Transitional Justice was widely republished and quoted by other media.

The coverage included text and video stories such as Females Were ‘Youngest and Oldest Victims’ of SrebrenicaSrebrenica: How Bosnians Reported Their Most Traumatic Story, Srebrenica Suspects Find Safe Haven in Serbia and a comment article by Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Why We Must Not Forget Srebrenica.

BIRN’s stories were quoted or republished more than 100 times in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region. Publications from Slovenia, Austria, Romania, Germany, Algeria, Australia, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Italy also quoted Balkan Insight articles on the topic.

BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina editor Denis Dzidic said that for more than a decade, BIRN Bosnia has been monitoring all the war crime trials in the country, “and as such is recognised by experts, media and the general public as the best source of information regarding genocide and war crimes”.

“Our Srebrenica coverage every year looks to implement several aspects – primarily we educate and remind readers about the various verdicts handed down by international and domestic courts. This is vital, because of the campaign of denial which exists in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region regarding the events in Srebrenica,” Dzidic said.

“Secondly, we look to have personal stories which describe the horrific events of July 1995 and its importance for Bosnian society today, which has still not faced up to the horrific crimes of the early 1990s conflict,” he added.

Albania and Kosovo Ministers, Experts Discuss Higher Education

BIRN Kosovo, in association with the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society, hosted a discussion panel entitled ‘The challenges of higher education in Kosovo and Albania’ on July 7 in Durres, Albania.

The debate brought together policy-makers, education experts and journalists from Kosovo and Albania as well as senior officials.

The panel consisted of Albanian and Kosovo Education Ministers, Lindita Nikolla and Shyqiri Bytyci who opened the panel with statements regarding the current situation of education and future cooperation between their two countries.

The ministers, along with professors Artan Fuga and Dukagjin Pupovci, discussed education reform and efforts to ensure quality in both countries.

According to Kosovo Education Minister Bytyci, the situation in Kosovo and Albania regarding higher education is similar and points towards a “quality crisis” in both countries.

Bytyci said that Kosovo higher education institutions, he said that different universities are working as companies, where diplomas are being sold just like products.

Bytyci also said that now is the time for the government to come up with measures to combat these phenomena.

However Albanian Education Minister Lindita Nikolla said that even though the ministries of both countries have worked together towards the improvement of the quality of education, the situation in these countries was not identical.

Nikolla highlighted efforts to accredit higher education institutions in Albania which have recently been carried out using a British quality assurance strategy.

Professor Dukagjin Pupovci said that the main issues that are not being addressed are the selling of diplomas and unprofessional qualifications.

Professor Artan Fuga said that one of the most criticised policies has been the tariff increase at public universities.

After the panel, the conference continued with a presentation by the Professor Gazmend Luboteni and Professor Vjollca Krasniqi from the Kosovo Accreditation Agency, who spoke about the issues of accreditation and quality assurance.

The third part of the conference involved journalists Besa Kalaja from Preportr, Besnik Krasniqi from Koha Ditore and Rron Gjinovci from ORCA, who held a discussion under the title ‘Reporting and investigation in education: specific cases’.

On July 8, the conference was followed by an intensive workshop with journalists, who developed ideas for investigative stories on higher education in Kosovo.

BIRN Albania Documentary Screened for EU Grantees

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania held a special screening of its documentary ‘Free Flow’ for grantees of EU-funded projects in Albania on July 4, when it was hailed as an example of effective cooperation between journalists and civil society to advocate for environmental and community rights.

The screening was held during an exchange event held at Tirana’s Europe House.

Representatives of 21 grantee organisations of new EU-funded projects of CSF and EIDHR, were invited to network, share and build synergies.

The documentary, which was directed by film-maker Elton Baxhaku, covers the decade-long grassroots struggle by local communities, activists and civil society organisations against hydropower plant projects that threaten the environment, the water supplies of local communities and their livelihoods that are based on sustainable tourism.

In the past two decades, the Albanian government has approved over 500 hydropower plant projects on its rivers and streams, which environmentalists say threaten some of the last unspoiled river systems in Europe.

The documentary focuses on three areas, the Shebenik Jabllanica National Park, the Vjosa River and the Valbona National Park – following local villagers, community rights activists, scientists and artists as they struggle to voice their concerns over hydropower plant projects, challenge concession contracts in court and protest in the streets to encourage support for their cause.

Elton Baxhaku is an acclaimed Albanian film-maker, best known for his 2014 documentary ‘Skandal’ and the 2016 documentary ‘Selita’, which was co-directed by Eriona Cami.

During the summer of 2018, BIRN Albania will take the documentary ‘Free Flow’ on the road and hold screenings in affected communities near the Vjosa River, the Valbona Valley and the Shebenik-Jabllanica National Park.

Balkan Public Service Media Assistance Project Starts

Six national public service broadcasters from the Western Balkans signed a memorandum of understanding in Tirana on June 27, officially marking the start of the project ‘Technical Assistance to Public Service Media in the Western Balkans’, funded by the EU to the sum of 1.5 million euros.

The aim of the project, which will run for the next two years, is to strengthen the independence, accountability and programming output of public service broadcasters RTVSH (Albania), BHRT (Bosnia and Herzegovina), RTK (Kosovo), MKRTV (Macedonia), RTCG (Montenegro) and RTS (Serbia).

The project is a collaboration between the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the Austrian public broadcaster (ORF), the Office of the Eurovision News Exchange for South-East Europe (ERNO) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN).

The project will deal with three core objectives – promoting European standards and best practices across the Western Balkans, generating synergies between public service media and regional exchanges on policies and practices for a new phase in the media reform process, and expanding and supporting cooperation on investigative journalism, youth programs and regional exchange of digitised archive materials.

BIRN will be the lead partner in building the capacities necessary to produce in-depth investigative reports. Making qualitative and trustworthy investigative journalism available to citizens is one of the key objectives of the project. During the project, BIRN will be offering local journalists from public service media the chance to work under the mentorship of world-renowned experts.

Over 60 representatives of public service media, international organisations, politicians and regulators discussed at the meeting in Tirana the best ways to help and support public service media in the Western Balkans. The meeting follows six months of intensive work to outline the scope of the project and the areas for cooperation and focus.

Launching the project, EBU director General Noel Curran said: “It is more important than ever to protect the editorial and institutional independence of public service media. As a community, we can make a positive impact on media and, by association, democracy throughout the Western Balkans.”

Karl Giacinti, programme manager at the European Commission, said that the EU sees reforms in public service broadcasters as an important part of the overall democratisation process toward EU accession and beyond.

“The reforms have been priorities for years and the EC is impatient to see improvements. We want to see reforms moving ahead visibly. For all these reasons, the EC decided to launch this project and will further invest in this sector to support the production of independent qualitative contents. Additional regional funds managed by Brussels and national funds from the EU Delegations will be available for this and similar initiatives,” said Giacinti.

Head of the EU Delegation to Albania, Romana Vlahutin, spoke of the importance of public service broadcasters’ independence.

“The defining feature of public broadcasting is its inclusiveness and independence: it is funded by the public and therefore it should be made for the public, serve the public and be controlled by the public. No other interest but the public interest should be the guiding principle of the work of every public broadcaster,” Vlahutin said.

Besides public service broadcasters as the main beneficiaries, the project will include cooperation with national parliaments, broadcasting regulatory authorities and relevant media NGOs.

BIRN Holds Meetings on Regional War Crimes Prosecution Cooperation

BIRN organised meetings of transitional justice stakeholders in Zagreb and Sarajevo in June to develop recommendations for improving regional cooperation in prosecuting crimes committed during the 1990s wars.

BIRN held meetings in Zagreb and Sarajevo with shareholders at the end of June as part of its Balkan Transitional Justice programme – representatives of victims’ associations and the judiciary, as well as NGO members and humanitarian law experts.

These closed expert meetings discussed the issue of regional cooperation between state authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia on prosecuting crimes from the 1990s wars.

At the meetings, participants raised their concerns about potential problems and offered possible solutions.

This input, along with input from meetings that wil take place in Belgrade and Pristina in early September, will be formulated into recommendations.

After all four meetings with stakeholders, one final conference will be held at the regional level in Sarajevo at the beginning of October.

The recommendations from the stakeholders’ meetings and the conference will be used for creating a policy paper for improving regional cooperation between states in prosecuting war crimes.

BIRN Interview Quoted During Ukrainian President’s Visit

Reporting on the visit by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Serbia,  Radio Free Europe – Balkan service reported that the tensions between Belgrade and the Ukrainian ambassador in Serbia, which had diplomatic consequences, arose in early November 2017 and that the trigger was ambassador Oleksandr Aleksandrovych’s interview with BIRN.

In the interview, Aleksandrovych said that “Putin does not care about Serbia”, claiming that Russia’s president is only using Serbia as “another instrument to destroy Europe”.

Aleksandrovych also stressed that that Serbia was not doing enough to stop its citizens from travelling to Ukraine to fight for pro-Russian forces in the conflict in the east.

The ambassador said that Russian propaganda and its secret services had played a huge role in attracting Serbian and other foreign mercenaries to Ukraine.

After BIRN interviewed the Ukrainian ambassador, tensions between Kiev and Belgrade rose.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called on Serbia to respect his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

After summoning the ambassador to Serbia back to Kiev for consultations on November 3, Ukraine’s government also urged Serbia to show respect for its sovereignty and integrity, and to deal with the issue of Serbs fighting for pro-Russian forces in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine.

Bosnian Officials Spend 4.5 Million Euros on Vehicles

Bosnian government institutions and public companies spent around 4.5 million euros on purchasing vehicles in the first six months of 2018, BIRN’s new database shows.

In the first six months of the year, around 4.5 million euros was spent on vehicles for government officials, institutions and public companies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to BIRN Bosnia’s new database.

Of this sum, 1.5 million euros were spent on cars, some of them luxury models. The other three million euros were spent on vehicles like fire trucks, ambulances and SUVs.

A total of 292 tenders were issued to purchase the vehicles, but in more than 70 per cent of the tenders that were fulfilled, only one company applied, the database shows.

Bosnian government institutions and public companies published tenders to purchase 563 vehicles during the six-month period, around half of which were passenger vehicles and SUVs.

So far, 106 tenders have been fulfilled to buy 213 cars – 128 of them new and 38 secondhand, and in the other cases details have not been made public.

The most expensive vehicle purchased in the first six months was for the medical faculty of the Mostar University, in a tender worth 50,000 euros.

Mostar medical faculty dean Milenko Bevanda first issued the tender in late 2017, but annulled it after receiving BIRN’s request for a comment about the purchase.

But in spring this year, Bevanda repeated the tender and bought a new vehicle worth 42,300 euros without taxes from the MRM company in Ljubuski.

BIRN’s database shows that in the first six months of this year, MRM won the most valuable tenders, worth over 375,000 euros.

Porsche BH from Sarajevo won the most tenders, valued at a total of 285,000 euros.

Of the 292 issued tenders in the database, BIRN marked 26 tenders in which the requested specifics of the vehicle are so detailed that they can limit competition or suggest a preferred manufacturer, which is against the country’s public procurement law.

In six tenders, the final value of the tender or purchase exceeded the amount which was planned.

The Bosnian Serb Interior ministry bought six used vehicles for more than 10,000 euros more than the estimated amount.

In the rest of the tenders, the demanded specifics of the vehicle suggest or sometimes directly state a particular model or manufacturer, which is against the public procurement law.

BIRN Bosnia published an analysis in December showing that around five million euros was spent on vehicles in 2017.

After BIRN’s reports about violations of public procurement practices, several institutions amended their tender specifications.

The database also contains a register for vehicles already owned by institutions and public companies, which shows that the average cost of a vehicle is around 25,000 euros.

The Bosnian presidency and the two entity presidents own a total of 54 cars, worth around 1.7 million euros.

The database can be seen here (Bosnian language only).

Few Kosovo Corruption Verdicts Lead to Jail Terms – BIRN

Only a small proportion of those found guilty of corruption in Kosovo end up in prison, the 12th court monitoring report produced by BIRN and Internews Kosova finds.

Few corruption-related court cases in Kosovo end with a prison sentence, BIRN Kosovo and Internews Kosova’s annual court monitoring report for 2017, presented on Tuesday, said.

Since the first such report, 12 years ago, the project has monitored over 10,000 court sessions, revealing important evidence of violations and failings within the judiciary in Kosovo.

Introducing the report, Labinot Leposhtica, from BIRN’s legal office in Kosovo, noted that only 32 of 254 court verdicts on corruption in 2017 resulted in prison sentences.

In most cases, those found guilty received conditional prison sentences or fines, Leposhtica added.

The report outlined numerous instances of light sentences – and of seriously prolonged corruption-related court cases.

Leposhtica also drew attention to procedural violations by judges, prosecutors and lawyers, which were witnessed during the monitoring.

The report was presented at a panel discussion on Tuesday, when the panelists discussed the main findings – including that few corruption cases in Kosovo end in prison sentences.

Jeta Xharra, BIRN Kosovo director, said that the past 12 years of court monitoring had revealed both progress and cause for disappointment.

She mentioned one notorious case, of Xhabir Zharku, former mayor of Kacanik, who after being convicted in Kosovo simply left the country and did not serve his prison sentence.

“The person you refer to is Kosovo’s shame, but such cases will not discourage us from supporting the judiciary. Such cases should not happen again,” Kosovo’s Minister of Justice, Abelard Tahiri, said, responding to Xharra’s words.

Tahiri said he saw BIRN as a welcome partner in his own work in the justice system.

The head of the Kosovo Supreme Court, Enver Peci, said judges and prosecutors had become more disciplined as a result of BIRN’s monitoring work over the past 12 years.

He said it was good that “the courts are not afraid of BIRN any longer; before, people were like, ‘Run! The BIRN people are here’ … whereas now we’ve become more disciplined because of you,” Peci said.

Hasan Shala, head of the Court of Appeals, talked about some of the worst flaws in the judiciary. “There are secret compromises between judges and prosecutors,” he admitted.

But he also mentioned achievements. “There were 160 cases related to corruption in 2017, 145 of which were closed during the year, so only 15 were left to be finished in 2018,” Shala noted.

Nehat Idrizi, head of the Kosovo Judicial Council, agreed with the findings of the report but said they were working hard on evaluating judges who since last year had been assessed by a professional commission.

“Last year, we started evaluating the judges’ performances; 66 judges have been evaluated, most of them have received a positive assessment, and only two or three were negative and had to undergo further training,” he said.

Idrizi said the low number of judges was a challenge when the number of unfinished court cases remained significant.

He also highlighted the lack of supporting staff for judges, arguing that they had an insufficient number of personal aides.