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Albania: Independent Inquiry Needed Into Protester Deaths

Prime Minister Should Refrain from Interfering in Case

(New York) - Prime Minister Sali Berisha of Albania should not interfere with the criminal investigation into the fatal shooting of three anti-government protesters on January 21, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today.

The three protesters were killed during violent demonstrations in the capital, Tirana, organized by the opposition Socialist Party to protest alleged corruption and electoral fraud.

Albania's general prosecutor, Ina Rama, ordered the arrest of six officers of the Republican Guard, which protects government officials and institutions, in relation to the fatal shootings. Berisha responded by accusing Rama of supporting a coup and saying the arrests "will absolutely not be carried out."

"The prime minister's comments and criticism of the general prosecutor threaten an independent investigation into the protesters' deaths," said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "All political forces should let the prosecutor carry out a proper investigation into the conduct of the protesters and security forces."

Albania's political opposition parties should also be careful not to incite violence, Human Rights Watch said. Some opposition leaders had made virulent statements against the government and Prime Minister Berisha prior to the protest.

At the protest on January 21, anti-government protesters clashed with police. Media reports and video from the demonstration indicate that protesters threw sticks and stones at police, while police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and firearms. Media reports indicate that between 60 and 150 policemen, guards and protesters were wounded. The police made more than 100 arrests.

On January 24, Prime Minister Berisha met publicly with members of the Republican Guard and defended their conduct during the demonstration. He called the arrest warrants against the six officers "a message that those who defend the Council of Ministers will be arrested."

As of January 25, the police had not carried out the general prosecutor's order to arrest the six members of the Republican Guard, including its commander and two other senior officers.

Under human rights law, law enforcement officials may use force against demonstrators who resort to violence. But they may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. In particular when a fatality results from the use of firearms by law enforcement, human rights law requires  a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into the death to assess whether the killing was lawful.

Albania has faced ongoing political tension since parliamentary elections in 2009, when the Socialist Party accused Berisha and his Democratic Party of rigging the vote. Since then, the opposition has criticized the government for failing to fight endemic corruption.

On January 14, Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta resigned after a video broadcast on a local television station apparently showed him trying to influence a government tender.

The Socialist Party has called for another demonstration on January 28. The government announced a "rally against violence" for the following day.

The European Union, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and US government have condemned the violence by protesters and government forces and called for "constructive dialogue and compromise to resolve the existing political differences." The OSCE added that an investigation into the violent events should continue "without any forms of interference."

In a statement on January 25, the US ambassador to Albania stated that "the United States supports the Office of the Prosecutor very fully and very completely."

"The government, ruling party and opposition should all be working toward the peaceful resolution of political disputes, and avoid actions that risk inciting more violence," Ward said. 

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