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article imageAlbanian justice on pause as judges fall victim to graft probe

By Briseida MEMA (AFP)     Jul 6, 2019 in World

Inside the halls of Albania's quiet Supreme Court building, a clock on the wall has stopped.

It is an apt symbol for a tribunal that hasn't held a hearing since May, after all but two judges were dismissed as part of a sweeping graft review that is cleaning out notoriously corrupt courts -- but also crippling Albania's judicial system in the process.

"In 2014 there were 17 (judges), in 2019 there remain only two," explains Ida Vodica, a Supreme Court spokeswoman.

One of the remaining judges, the president, is under review.

The country launched the intensive vetting process three years ago under pressure from the European Union, which the Balkan state aspires to join.

An independent body has been tasked with screening judges and prosecutors on three criteria: their assets and income, any links with Albania's powerful organised crime groups, and their professional and ethical conduct in the past.

It's a deep scrub of a system where lawyers have said the bulk of their work is acting as "brokers" to negotiate the size of a bribe.

But it is also leaving the country, whose government happens to be mired in a political crisis, lacking a key pillar of democracy.

- Betting luck and wedding gifts -

So far, 140 out of 800 judges and prosecutors have been reviewed.

Out of that figure 88 have either been dismissed -- mostly for issues related to unjustified assets -- or resigned just before they were set to be scrutinised, according to a May report from the European Commission.

At a hearing before the independent commission last month Gurali Brahimllari, a judge in a criminal appeal court in Tirana, said he was "surprised" by their analysis that his assets greatly exceeded his income.

He provided paperwork to explain the imbalance. But the commission was not convinced, and he was dismissed.

Ruze Iso  62  submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court to reverse a house forfeiture ruling by the C...
Ruze Iso, 62, submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court to reverse a house forfeiture ruling by the Court of Appeal due to inability to pay back debt which she claims was based on forged documents

It was a similar story for a prosecutor who in November failed to convince the panel that thousands of euros (dollars) in income was the result of a lucky streak in sports betting.

Meanwhile, a judge from the Constitutional Court tried in vain to explain that he received 15,000 euros worth of gifts on the occasion of his daughter's marriage.

The net has even caught one of Albania's most feared men -- former Attorney General Adriatik Lalla, whose assets have been seized as he is under investigation for money laundering.

- 32,000 untouched files -

The EU has applauded the results of the probe as "crucial to restoring public trust in the judiciary".

But ordinary people like 62-year old Ruze Iso are victims of the judicial stagnation.

Since 2018 she has asked the Supreme Court to annul the seizure of her house over a debt, claiming that the ruling was based on fake documents forged by corrupt legal officers.

"My husband is ill, we're all on the street," she says, explaining that they now live in an abandoned garage.

Her case is likely among the mountains of paperwork that are filling up archive rooms, empty offices and dark courtrooms and collecting dust.

"Currently, there is a stack of 32,000 files awaiting review, and we don't even have a place to deposit them," said Vodica.

The court's president Xhezair Zaganjori assures that "in late summer or early September four or five new judges will probably arrive to take over the files."

Authorities claim the Constitutional Court could be functional again in early 2020.

At present, only one of nine judges has evaded the probe.

The head of a national school to train judges and prosecutors, Sokol Sadushi, insists the reforms are necessary, despite the unwanted side effects.

"The corruption, irresponsibility, lack of professionalism, and political influence have required radical measures and urgent cleaning of the justice to restore the confidence" of citizens, he told AFP.

In the meantime, judges have one perk they can count on.

To dampen any appetite for kickbacks, the salaries of high-ranking judges have been increased from between 1,300 ($1,470) and 1,700 euros ($1920) to 2,200-2,800 euros a month.

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