Kosovo’s Courts Struggle to Hold Corrupt Officials to Account

Kosovo has made progress in reducing a backlog of corruption cases, but very few corrupt officials end up behind bars.

Its rivals in Kosovo’s February election, Vetevendosje [Self-Determination] vowed to reinvigorate the fight against endemic corruption in Europe’s youngest state.

Winning in a landslide, Vetevendosje will have the chance to prove it was no empty promise.

But data viewed by BIRN and monitoring of court cases suggest the party has its work cut out.

While the high number of unresolved corruption cases before the Kosovo courts is gradually falling, experts question the claim this shows progress in the fight against graft.

“Fewer cases are being left for the following year, but the essence is in the manner in which the cases are resolved,” said Arton Demhasaj, director of the NGO ‘Cohu’, which has spent the past five years monitoring corruption cases in Kosovo.

Even of those that end in conviction, most result, he said, in “either suspended sentences or fines and in only very few cases – around four to five per cent – imprisonment.”

Such outcomes only serve to fuel corruption, Demhasaj told BIRN. “There is a type of amnesty if I don’t see punishments, especially for high-level corruption cases.”

Hearing postponed

Corruption has blighted Kosovo’s recovery from a 1998-99 war and hindered its economic and political development since the former Serbian province declared independence in 2008.

Successive governments have adopted multi-year action plans to root out graft, with little to show for them when the next general election comes round, roughly every two years in Kosovo’s recent history.

In its own campaign, Vetevendosje promised to establishment a Bureau of Investigation to probe state officials and pledged greater powers for the country’s Anti-Corruption Agency.

In its last stint in government in 2020, which lasted less than two months, Vetevendosje initiated a working group for a potential vetting process to weed out corrupt judges and prosecutors in the Kosovo judicial system. Its successor took the process on and a study for how the vetting might be carried out now exists.

But while that all looks good on paper, in reality the fight is failing.

According to a report by Cohu, of 575 court sessions monitored between October 2018 and September 2019, 97 were postponed. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have made matters even worse, with 113 of 371 monitored court sessions postponed between September 2019 and August 2020.

BIRN too has monitored a number of corruption cases in Kosovo, most of which have dragged on for years.

The so-called Toka [Earth] case, involving wartime guerrilla commander and former Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, MP Azem Syla and some 20 other defendants accused over the illegal appropriation of land near the capital, Pristina, has been going on for four years.

In another case, 40 state officials have been charged since September 2016 with organised crime, with the trial postponed three times between June and October 2019. Like the Toka case, no hearing has been held since the first cases of COVID-19 were registered in March 2020.

Meanwhile, former Public Administration Deputy Minister Bujar Nerjovaj remains on trial, two and a half years after an indictment was filed against him in the southern city of Prizren accusing him of abuse of official position for personal material gain. Charged in October 2018, he was only dismissed by then Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in June 2019, at his own request.

Charges dropped

Taking into account only the number of corruption indictments filed, Kosovo looks like it’s doing well.

Data since 2013, provided by the Kosovo Prosecutorial Council Secretariat, show a high rate of indictments and a drop in the number of unresolved cases year after year.

But there are very few guilty verdicts.

Demhasaj said many indictments are thrown out due to a lack of evidence. The majority of prosecutors, he said, often submit either “large indictments with very little material evidence or simple indictments with much material evidence badly explained.”

Prosecutors themselves drop charges at a significant rate. According to BIRN’s calculations, prosecutors dropped criminal charges against an average of 282 people per year between 2013 and 2019. Between January and September 2020, charges were dropped against 162.

On average, prosecutors also dropped investigations into 248 people per year between 2013 and 2019, and 97 people between January and September 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have set the judiciary back even further, though the data is incomplete.

Up to September 2020, there were 310 unresolved cases before the courts. Only 220 cases had been resolved. That compares with 233 unresolved cases in 2019 and 400 resolved cases.

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