WORLD REPORT 2001 - Albania

Human Rights Developments

With the rapid repatriation of over 450,000 Kosovar refugees from northern Albania to Kosovo by 2000, Albania was once again able to turn inward and focus on internal reforms. Problems remained with regard to corruption, excessive force used by the police, trafficking of women, and controls on the media. The two main political rivals in Albania-Sali Berisha, president of the opposition Democratic Party (DP), and Fatos Nano, president of the ruling Socialist Party (SP)-revived the bitter political feuding that had polarized Albanian society over the past decade and forestalled the emergence of younger, less divisive political leaders in Albania.

The bitter rivalry became notably evident in the preparations for the October local elections. Berisha had waged a relentless campaign of accusations against the SP since losing power in 1997 and accused the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) of bias. He called for the reinstatement of a bipartisan commission-rather than the intended nonpolitical body-and boycotted the CEC. In August, Berisha accused Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers of being partial toward the government and the SP and said he would refuse to cooperate with them during the election.

In June the Council of Europe expressed concern over the lack of progress in investigating the 1998 assassination of senior DP member Azem Hajdari. The authorities blamed key DP witnesses, who refused to cooperate with what they saw as a biased investigation. Another investigation, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers into the pyramid schemes that collapsed in early 1997 during Berisha's leadership, concluded in January 2000 that only U.S. $50 million of the public's lost money was recoverable. The lack of a conviction in the Hajdari case and inability of the accounting firm to locate and repatriate the bulk of the money lost in the pyramid schemes exacerbated the deep divisions in Albanian politics.

Despite the highly partisan political atmosphere, the Albanian government made some sincere efforts to confront official corruption and to establish public order in the country. After passing the Law on the State Police in December 1999, the Ministry of Public Order began restructuring the police force, improving recruitment procedures, and training new police chiefs. The police also cracked down on armed gangs, and their number was reported to be decreasing.

Senior police officers supported by high-level politicians were still suspected of involvement in the escalation of drug trafficking in Albania, which was said to have increased corruption in the country. The police also at times utilized excessive force against suspects during arrests and in the initial period of detention. In September both government and parliamentary officials requested that the Western European Union extend its assistance program (of training, counseling, and logistical support) to the Albanian police for an additional year.

Violations of women's human rights continued unabated in Albania, as trafficking and domestic violence plagued women and girls throughout the country. Many women, lured with deceptive offers of lucrative work abroad, migrated to Western Europe only to find themselves sold as virtual slaves for approximately U.S. $1,000 each. Traffickers also abducted women and girls, stripping them of their passports and forcing them to work in brothels in Italy and other E.U. countries. Women trapped in forced prostitution and other types of forced labor feared turning to law enforcement for assistance, terrified that their "employers" would carry out threats of harm against them and their families. Domestic violence also devastated women's lives in Albania; nongovernmental organizations compensated for a lack of state response to the abuse by opening a shelter for battered women in Tirana with Italian funding. Girls suffered from a lack of educational opportunities, as fearful parents refused to allow thousands of school-aged females to attend school amid concerns about the girls' safety and "honor."

Smuggling of human beings expanded as a highly profitable business. Foreign nationals (increasingly Turkish Kurds) and asylum seekers transiting en route to the E.U., Albanian men seeking work in the E.U., and Albanian women and girls paid exorbitant amounts of money to be smuggled across the Adriatic Sea on speed boats. Low police morale and a faltering judicial system limited Albania's ability to combat organized crime.

Following the adoption of the Law on the People's Advocate in February 1999, the Albanian parliament named the country's first ombudsman, Emir Objani, in February 2000. Objani's office struggled throughout 2000 to acquire premises and become operational.

The October 1 municipal elections were seen as a major test of Albania's fragile democracy. There were some violent incidents prior to the electoral campaign, as when four DP activists from the Lezhe region were pulled over and beaten by masked special police forces on a road north of Tirana in March. But the fact that the DP's Sali Berisha was able to hold a peaceful political rally in May in the southern city of Vlora-traditionally a SP stronghold-was a sign of some growing stability. Only a few violent incidents were reported, a tribute to the government's efforts, as well as to the restraint of the political parties themselves.

Despite some irregularities, including errors and omissions in the new voter register, the municipal electoral commissions generally administered the voting procedures correctly. Police conduct was deemed appropriate by international monitors, who saw "significant progress" in the elections toward meeting international standards. The SP made significant gains in the first round, and an October 15 runoff led to an overwhelming SP victory. The ruling SP won in 262 out of 398 towns and municipalities in two rounds of the local elections. International monitors considered the second round "less transparent and inclusive" due to the failure to address inaccuracies in the voter lists, invalid ballots, and election complaints. In the southern coastal town of Himara, where a Greek minority resides, serious irregularities occurred, includingintimidation of election commission members, the destruction of one ballot box in a violent incident, and fraud in three other voting centers. Nationalist rhetoric during the campaign, both at the local and national level, had heightened tension in the town over a possible victory by the local ethnic Greek Human Rights Union Party.

Albania's state television was criticized by the OSCE in the first week of the campaign period in early September for strongly favoring the SP in its coverage, particularly when it violated the electoral code by transmitting a full interview with SP chairman Fatos Nano. The OSCE simultaneously criticized the DP-controlled ATN-1 station in Tirana for covering DP electoral activities for twenty-four hours. Throughout this period the smaller parties received scant attention from the media. During the October 15 runoff vote candidates received limited coverage as the media focused on the threat of a DP boycott and developments in Himara. TVSH, the public television broadcaster, was reported to have provided the SP with a disproportionate amount of coverage, though the tone of the information provided was, overall, considered to be balanced.

Private media owners were often seen as being affiliated with or supporters of the SP or the DP, and many journalist were often induced or bribed to investigate the "other" party. Journalists also continued to face security risks while conducting their work. For example, in March police forces in the town of Korca physically abused a journalist from local radio ABC. In April, two journalists from TV KLAN, filming near the Foreign Ministry in Tirana, were allegedly attacked by five members of the Republican Guard. In May, two journalists from TV ATN 1 were illegally detained by police officers and beaten while in detention. Numerous private radio and television stations had also been broadcasting throughout the country since 1997 without any legal status, and Albania's National Radio and Television Commission planned to issue licenses for them in October, after the municipal election.

Defending Human Rights

The two major nongovernmental human rights organizations functioned, largely, without interference. The Albanian Human Rights Group (AHRG) reported that when it published a report in April on police misconduct in the city of Elbasan, the director of the organization as well as the authors of the report received anonymous phone calls threatening retribution for its publication. The AHRG continued receiving complaints from citizens regarding abuses, and the Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC) continued its long-term project of monitoring pretrial detention centers administered by the police and prisons administered by the General Directorate of Prisons through visits to places of detention in numerous municipalities throughout Albania. The AHC initiated a project in May establishing a telephone hotline to be operational twelve hours a week where citizens-including those imprisoned or detained-could call in to report human rights violations and receive pro bono legal assistance. After the Albanian parliament enacted the Law on the People's Advocate in February, the AHC entered into a contract with the new ombudsman's office establishing a joint project to support the ombudsman's activities.

The Role of the International Community

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

The OSCE focused much of its efforts on preparations for the October 1 local elections throughout Albania. Ambassador Geert Ahrens, the head of the OSCE Mission to Albania, chaired an election working group which met with Albanian officials and political party members almost daily-starting in March-to address specific concerns regarding the electoral code and voter registration procedures. The OSCE's Warsaw-based Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights, which usually is not involved in municipal elections, sent eighteen long-term observers and 239 short-term observers to monitor the vote.

Council of Europe

Albania made substantial progress in meeting its legal reform obligations to the Council of Europe. In September 1999 the government ratified the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, a step that could provide Albania's ethnic Greek minority (who constitute 3 percent of the population) with greater linguistic freedom, autonomy in education, recourse against discrimination, and increased access to the media. Following threats of expulsion from the Council of Europe if Albania did not end capital punishment, the Constitutional Court ruled in December 1999 that the death penalty was incompatible with the Albanian constitution. Confirming the decision in April 2000, Prime Minister Ilir Meta signed Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, and the document was ratified by the Albanian government in September 2000. The Council of Europe appointed a special representative in Albania in May 2000 to increase contacts with the Albanian government and civil society.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Following the refugee crisis in 1999, 1,300 NATO troops remained in Albania in 2000 to provide support to NATO's neighboring Kosovo Force and to show NATO's commitment to supporting stability in Albania, a member of the alliance's Partnership for Peace program.

European Union

The E.U. provided 35 million euro (U.S. $31.5 million) in financial assistance to support Albanian reform efforts in 2000, but remained skeptical about initiating the integration of the country into E.U. institutions due to insufficient "institutional and political reform." Relations with most E.U. member states continued to improve in light of Albania's pro-Western stance during the Kosovo crisis. Based on a series of agreements, Italy and Albania increased cooperation in fighting organized crime and cross-Adriatic smuggling and trafficking in humans.

United States

The U.S. government continued to maintain close ties with Albania in 2000, allocating an estimated U.S. $32 million in aid to support the country's reform efforts and strongly supporting the government's participation in the Balkan Stability Pact. The U.S. also strengthened economic relations with Albania when the Senate voted in November 1999 to grant Albania Normal Trade Relations status with the U.S.

International Financial Institutions

Citing the Albanian government's steadfast pursuit of sound macroeconomic policies and a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growing at around 7 percent, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave Albania a positive economic assessment in June 2000 and continued providing financial assistance for poverty reduction and the facilitation of economic growth. The World Bank also continued to provide Albania with loans to support water supply rehabilitation, a microcredit project, as well as reform in the fields of education, the judiciary, public administration, and the banking and insurance industries. Albania also joined the World Trade Organization in September 2000.