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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.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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