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Albania’s judicial reforms all but go up in smoke

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Albania’s judicial reforms all but go up in smoke

A smoke bomb erupts in Albania's parliament
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Merxhan Daci for Euronews

The Albanian parliament was filled with smoke on December 18 when the ruling Socialist Party voted to appoint an interim prosecutor general – a move that prompted opposition MPs to release smoke bombs as they claimed the process was unconstitutional.

Outside the Assembly building, protesters supporting the opposition and police clashed, but these protests, including the opposition inside Parliament, were not enough to strike down the 69 votes that confirmed prosecutor Arta Marku as the interim prosecutor general.

Deputies of the Democratic party forcefully occupy the parliamentary podium during a parliamentary session for the election of the new prosecutor.
Deputies of the Democratic party forcefully occupy the parliamentary podium during a parliamentary session for the election of the new prosecutor.

Albania's opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha speaks during a protest in front of the Parliament in Tirana.
Albania's opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha speaks during a protest in front of the Parliament in Tirana.

Supporters of the opposition party shout slogans during a protest in front of the Parliament.
Supporters of the opposition party shout slogans during a protest in front of the Parliament.

Opposition lawmakers claim that the ruling party’s appointment violates the constitution and that it’s part of a plan to control the prosecution office, emphasizing that an independent commission should appoint the prosecutor general.

But the Socialist Party denied this – saying they had to make a temporary appointment after the previous general prosecutor’s five-year term ended in early December to, they claim, ensure the prosecution office remains functional.

Albania’s 2016 judicial reform has recently come into effect in a bid to build an independent judiciary, with 91 per cent of Albanians backing the measure. The country’s politicians and judges have been dogged by corruption allegations. These high-level people – known as “big fishes” – are expected to see criminal charges once the reforms are enforced.

The judicial reform foresees the establishment of two institutions: the Special Prosecution Office and the National Investigation Bureau, which will be directly in charge of high-level crime investigations and corruption.

The US Embassy in Tirana, which favours – and has even assisted – the bill’s passage, said the clashes in parliament signal that the reforms are being implemented and Albanians “should not be surprised”.

“The people of Albania should not be surprised that their politicians are fighting amongst themselves. This means the judicial reform is finally being implemented. The people of Albania are impatient for justice. And the politicians are afraid,” the embassy said in a statement.

The European Union also strongly backs the judicial reform, a move seen as a crucial stepping stone for Albania’s bid for EU accession.

Afrim Krasniqi, an independent political expert and the executive director of Albanian Political Studies Institute, says most politicians, not just the ruling party, are against the reform and that it’s mostly being promoted by the international community rather than Albanian politics.

“The last conflict was not directly related with the prosecutor but ‘de facto’ with the judicial reform. The confrontation shows how scared politicians are and that’s the only good news. There is a clear paradox, Albania is investing in the most important reform ever in justice while its leaders are against and ready to create obstacles,” Krasniqi told Euronews.

Krasniqi also said both the government and opposition are guilty of trying to block the reform, adding that it may lead to a parliamentary boycott.

“The government hasn’t yet fulfilled its duties in implementing the reform laws. On the other hand, the opposition is using an excuse to stop the implementation. The problem is whether this crisis will lead to a parliamentary boycott – [meaning] some of the vetting bodies yet elected would be appointed by the majority alone, which could compromise the credibility of the reform.”

Jordan Daci, a local independent justice expert, says the judicial reform is needed for Albania and its democracy.

“The reform has entered into a very crucial stage and the first results are expected to be seen by the first quarter of 2018. Such reform is crucial for the rule of law and further consolidation and strengthening of the democracy in Albania,” he told Euronews.

He added that although the political class has never truly supported the reform, it’s still largely welcomed by Albanians – many of whom want a fully independent and responsible judiciary.

Fatjona Mejdini, an experienced journalist based in Tirana, says politicians are feeling the pressure as they are no longer in a “safe zone”.

“The reform is thorough and has already started to give the first results, making corrupted politicians feel that they are not going to be safe anymore. The anxiety of a possible confrontation in the near future with the new justice bodies creates an inflammatory political rhetoric,” she told Euronews.

When it comes to civil society, Mirela Arqimandriti, director of the Gender Alliance for Development Center, says the public fears that there may be more clashes and confrontation to come.

“Albania needs this reform more than ever but it is progressing slowly. There is also a fear from the people that it may bring further clashes,” she said. “I hope that after the reform implementation, justice will be separated from politics and business.”

Eldolina Këputa, a 22-year-old student at the University of Tirana, is optimistic for the future after the implementation of the reform.

“The last clashes show how corrupt our parliament and justice [system] are. For my entire generation, the judicial reform is the hope that Albania will make it so that we can build our future here, fearless from the insecurity tomorrow could bring.”