Fact finding mission to Albania

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee calls for the investigation of alleged crimes relating to the 21 January 2011 demonstrations in Albania, to respect the independence of the country’s General Prosecutor and for steps to be taken to ensure transparency and real and perceived fairness of the 8 May local elections.

Secretary General Bjørn Engesland and Advisor Ole Benny Lilleås from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee visited Albania 14-18 March 2011 to examine human rights concerns over the rule of law, gain a deeper understanding of the political situation and to invigorate the cooperation with the Albanian Helsinki Committee, a leading human rights NGO.

Albania’s positive political and economic development culminated in full NATO-membership in 2009. Since then, positive trends have reversed and a deepening crisis has emerged between the major political parties following doubts about the fairness of the 2009 parliamentary elections.

The ensuing political stalemate has included a boycott of parliament by the opposition Socialist Party for much of 2010 and a paralysis of decision-making in several fields, including the appointment of the People’s Advocate. Harsh rhetoric has further poisoned the climate in parliament.

The demonstrations organized by the opposition Socialist Party on 21 January have raised political tensions dramatically. Four people were shot dead, numerous were injured and more than 113 individuals were arrested. Human rights groups have called for those responsible to be investigated efficiently and impartially. Groups critical to the fairness of the investigations have pointed out that, despite the Prosecutor General’s speedy issuance of arrest warrants for seven members of the Republican Guard assumed to be involved in or possessing information about the shooting of demonstrators, the police did not comply with this order until well into the following week. Moreover, the Prime Minister’s office seemed to support the delay which gave ample time for the seven to prepare and possibly coordinate statements.

In the meantime, representatives of the government had stated that the General Prosecutor and the country’s President were involved in an attempted coup and that the GP was a “lady of the Boulevard.” In the NHC’s opinion, however concerning this rhetoric may be, reactions to it should not deflect attention from the real underlying problem of upholding the rule of law and respect for the independent institutions at a time of political crisis. The NHC calls for support to the Prosecutor General and her office. The independence of that institution is at stake at a time when it is most needed.

Proper investigation by competent authorities must be carried out for all alleged crimes relating to 21 January, including allegations of murder, excessive use of force, violence against public officers, torture and cruel and inhuman treatment as well as arbitrary deprivation of liberty. All political actors should respect and support due process in this matter.

Local elections are due to be held on 8 May 2011. Even if these are local elections, they are expected to amplify the ongoing political conflict. Ever since 1997, it has been necessary to strike a major compromise between the holders of power and the opposition forces on electoral rules and the administration of elections to secure a basic consensus and gradual changes. This time around no such compromise has been worked out. The opposition has complained about shortcomings in the voters’ lists and in the organization of the counting. The NHC holds that even if both parties may certainly be to blame for the tense political situation, the government of the country is the main entity responsible for ensuring that the elections will be carried out in a framework which is fair and reasonably seen to be fair. The Government of Albania should work with the opposition and international partners, including the OSCE, to urgently identify means to improve the transparency and real and perceived fairness of the electoral process as much as possible within the limited time available.

The delegation was hosted by the Albanian Helsinki Committee and met with representatives of the Government including the Ministers of Justice and Innovation, the Head of the opposition Socialist Party, MPs from the main parties, the Prosecutor General, representatives from the People’s Advocate office, and various interlocutors from the media and civil society. The delegation visited Tirana and Vlora and observed a peaceful demonstration at Gerdes that was organized by the Socialist Party. Engesland gave an interview to a Vlora TV-station. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is grateful to its Albania Helsinki Committee for organizing the visit.