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Human Rights Development

      In 1991, Albania attempted to accelerate the reform process that has gradually brought an end to over four decades of communist rule and political isolation. But significant human rights problems remain, due in part to the near-collapse of the economy and the desperate attempt of thousands of Albanians to flee the country.

      During the previous two years, Albania made slow progress toward respect for human rights and the rule of law. There was a gradual abolition of the most repressive practices of the reign of long-time dictator Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985. In May 1990, under the leadership of President Ramiz Alia, the government rescinded several criminal laws that had been used for political persecution. In November 1990, the government restored the right to practice one's religion, began to release political prisoners, and authorized the provision of legal assistance to criminal defendants, which had been prohibited since 1967.

      In December 1990, in response to large-scale protests, the government authorized multiparty elections for the first time under the ruling Albanian Labor Party. The next day, the government formally recognized the opposition Democratic Party, and the registration of other political parties followed. Elections were ultimately set for March 31, 1991.

      The election campaign was marred by continuing restrictions on civil society that curtailed the ability of the opposition to transmit its message to Albania's 3.2 million people. The opposition parties faced a monumental task in attempting to overcome forty-six years of Labor Party domination. Although registered political parties were allowed to publish their own newspapers beginning in December 1990, the limited availability of newsprint and transportation made it difficult for the opposition to reach many Albanians, especially in the countryside, where the majority lives. Although formal campaign air time was allocated on an equal basis, government control of television and radio news programs presented an additional disadvantage for opposition parties.

      Election observers from Europe and the United States, as well as a number of foreign journalists, were allowed to monitor and report on the elections. Official observers concluded that the elections fell short of internationally recognized standards because of the parties' unequal access to the media as well as intimidation of opposition candidates and political activists during the campaign. For example, a letter received by an opposition party polling monitor in the town of Burreli threatened her and her family with death and the destruction of their house if she did not publicly renounce the opposition

      The Labor Party won a landslide in the rural areas, while the Democratic Party secured a resounding victory in urban areas. According to the final tally, the Labor Party won 64.5 percent of the electoral districts and the Democratic Party captured 27 percent. The Greek minority won seats in three of the five electoral districts where it fielded candidates.

      Less than two months after the March 31 elections, the Labor Party government was forced to resign due to growing labor unrest and political protest. On June 10, the Labor Party held its tenth congress and, in an attempt to distance itself from the past, changed its name to the Socialist Party. Later in June, negotiations between the Socialist Party and the opposition yielded a "stability government" with representation from the five main political parties.1 The opposition appointed seven of the twenty-four cabinet ministers, including the deputy prime minister. All cabinet members were required to give up their political affiliation.

      On December 4, the Democratic Party, Albania's largest opposition party, withdrew from the coalition government to force early elections. Prime Minister Ylli Bufi resigned and was replaced by Vilson Ahmeti. In mid-December, President Alia was struggling to find a compromise between the main political parties so that a "stability government" could govern through the winter.

      Periodic, unpunished official violence has scarred Albania's political transition. On February 22, a meeting of conservative officials took place at the Military Academy in Tirana. Responding to rumors of a possible coup attempt, a crowd of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered outside, some throwing rocks. Tensions mounted, and soldiers on the roof began shooting into the crowd below, killing four. One policeman was also killed There was no known official response to the killings.

      Only two days after the March 31 elections, official violence erupted again during a demonstration protesting election fraud in the northern city of Shkoder. Four people were killed and over fifty injured when the police fired into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. Under growing pressure from the Democratic Party, the government announced a commission to investigate the violence. On July 29, after mounting domestic and international pressure, three police officials were put on trial for the shootings. On the third day of trial, proceedings were suspended to allow further investigation. No new trial date has been set.

      Albanian security forces also used excessive force in responding to waves of would-be emigrants. On March 8, troops stormed some one thousand refugees perched on a ship in Durres harbor, and a few soldiers opened fire. According to testimony taken by Helsinki Watch the next day in Durres, at least two died and eight were wounded in the attack. On June 11, an Albanian naval patrol shot and killed two Albanian refugees and injured four others who were attempting to flee by boat. At least one civilian was shot during clashes between police and crowds trying to storm ships in Durres harbor on August 7, and there were unconfirmed reports from Albanian journalists that another civilian was shot by security forces during clashes with crowds in the port of Vlore on October 17.

      There is no indication that the officials responsible for these shootings have been prosecuted. To the contrary, the Albanian government placed the port of Durres under army control, and Prime Minister Ylli Bufi announced in June that border guards are authorized to open fire on anyone trying to escape.

      In early December, the political crisis in the Albanian government, as well as official statements that food supplies would last only one week, provoked three days of food riots throughout the country. Two people were reportedly killed in the city of Lac on December 8 when shots were fired during one such riot. The police and army took control of food distribution in the country, and on December 7 President Alia reportedly issued an emergency decree authorizing Albanian security forces to shoot if necessary to keep order and protect Albania's food supplies.

      For many years, Albania had among the largest number of political prisoners in Europe. In late 1990, the government began to release these prisoners in substantial numbers. According to the government, 191 political prisoners were released in 1990, another 202 in January 1991, and 126 on March 17. On July 2, President Alia signed a decree granting amnesty to all prisoners convicted of espionage, sabotage, diversion and terrorist acts, as well as those convicted of slandering high state organs; approximately ninety prisoners were released following the decree. The Forum for the Defense of Human Rights in Albania, an independent monitoring organization, reported shortly thereafter that, according to its information, no political prisoners remain in Albania.

      Though a tremendously important step, the mere release of these prisoners did not bring an end to the injustice they continue to suffer. Many have been freed without jobs, housing or even documents to verify their whereabouts during their years in detention.

      During 1991, former political prisoners demanded that the Albanian government take specific steps to rehabilitate them. On September 21, a group of former political prisoners went on a hunger strike in the center of Tirana, demanding that they be declared innocent, that their confiscated property be restored, and that the government assist them in finding homes and jobs. On September 24, government representatives met with the strikers and created a commission to address their demands. The commission is responsible for, among other things, finding employment for former political prisoners on a priority basis, providing economic support and housing assistance for them and their families, and identifying the graves of prisoners who died during detention and returning their bodies to their families. On September 30, the Parliament enacted an Amnesty Law recognizing the innocence of all who had been convicted of crimes of conscience under the previous regime. The Amnesty Law also established a method of compensation for former prisoners and included within its scope all persons deported or sent to internal exile for political reasons.

      Even before the Amnesty Law, Albanian courts had begun to reconsider sentences passed under the previous regime. On August 10, the Supreme Court reviewed the cases of twenty-two citizens who had been sentenced to death by firing squad on charges of treason and acts of terrorism in 1951. The court found the verdicts unjust and overturned them.

      While many of these prisoners were incarcerated for the peaceful expression of their views, all prisoners convicted before then in Albania, including those convicted for common crimes, were uniformly denied basic due process under the previous regime. Since criminal defense lawyers were outlawed until November 1990, none of the prisoners convicted before then received the benefit of independent counsel, and very few received any legal assistance at all. Because there was no independent judiciary, none received the benefit of a trial before an impartial tribunal. Many prisoners also told Helsinki Watch that they had been coerced to confess to their alleged crimes.

      The Supreme Court is in the process of reviewing the cases of all those who claim that their conviction for a common crime was politically motivated or not supported by the evidence submitted at trial. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court told Helsinki Watch in November 1991 that he had received requests to review approximately five hundred cases. (There are approximately 950 common prisoners currently in Albanian prisons.) The Amnesty Law discussed above also provides that former convicts, prisoners and people sent into internal exile who are not covered by the law may petition the Council of Ministers for review of their cases.

      The Albanian government has not sought to hold accountable those responsible for gross human rights abuses committed during the decades of communist rule. There have been no trials of individuals charged with human rights abuses under the previous regime. Instead, several former high-ranking officials were prosecuted for economic crimes such as misuse of state funds. These included:

o Manush Myftiu, a top communist official under the Hoxha regime, and Kino Buxheli, a state functionary, were arrested on August 31 and charged with misuse of state funds.

o Former Interior Minister Hekuran Isai, who was also arrested on October 7 for misusing state funds.

o Members of twenty-six families against whom legal proceedings have been brought following an investigation into the last three years of communist rule, according to current Finance Minister Genc Ruli.

o On December 5, Nexhmije Hoxha, widow of the former dictator, was arrested on charges of corruption and misappropriation of $300,000 of state money.

o Rita Marko, a Politburo member for thirty-four years, was also arrested on December 5 on corruption charges.

      There has been no investigation into the Sigurimi, the former Albanian secret police who terrorized the population for decades. The government has failed to provide any information about the whereabouts of former Sigurimi officers or to respond to calls for a thorough investigation into their past and present activities.

      Albanian television and radio continues to be controlled by the government. As noted, during the first months of 1991, this control posed difficulties for opposition political campaigning. In late April, transitional legislation transferred control of the television and radio, as well as other official media, from the Executive to the Parliament. However, in late 1991, many political activists still complained of the continuing pro-government bias of the Albanian television and radio. In early November, employees of the state radio and television went on strike to demand the removal of former communists who still occupy senior posts. They demanded that sensitive media positions be filled by nonparty individuals and that the television and radio be completely restructured.

      A wide range of opposition political parties, as well as groups representing the interests of minorities, were able to organize during 1991 without government interference. However, in October, Parliament passed a law prohibiting the formation of political parties along ethnic or religious lines. The law was enacted despite the vehement opposition of the Greek minority representatives in Parliament who viewed the law as an effort to prevent them from participating in the 1992 elections. Because the law violates the fundamental political rights of ethnic minorities, it has no place in a democratic society and should be repealed.

      On April 10, the Albanian government published a new draft constitution _ essentially a revision of the December 1990 draft _ incorporating important safeguards for many basic liberties. However, Parliament was not able to reach agreement on the draft and, on April 30, passed transitional legislation to facilitate other legal reforms. Entitled "The Law on the Main Constitutional Provisions," the transitional legislation is to remain in effect until Parliament can agree on the text of a new constitution, presumably in the first quarter of 1992.

      Article 2 of the transitional law states: "The Republic of Albania is a juridical and democratic state....The constitutional order, equality before the law, social justice, and pluralism are the foundations of this state...." The law also provides for the depoliticization of the government, including the president, who may not have any party affiliation. As noted, the law also places radio, television and other official media under the control of the Parliament.

      In the course of 1991, Albania moved toward signing several significant human rights documents and joining related international organizations. On June 19, Albania became a full member of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), pledging to honor political and economic freedoms. On October 4, Albania acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. On September 12, Albania signed the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords.

The Right to Monitor

      The Forum for the Defense of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the first independent human rights organization in Albania, was registered by the Albanian Ministry of Justice in January 1991 and has been able to conduct its work without open government interference, although Forum members received repeated anonymous telephone threats in the early months of 1991. In June, the Forum protested to the government that law-enforcement forces had failed to protect a warehouse owned by the Forum and the Albanian Red Cross when it was attacked by a large crowd of peasants who stole the goods inside. The warehouse had contained food and medicine for destitute people, former prisoners and victims of persecution. In August, a second independent human rights group was formed, the Association of Former Political Prisoners and Detainees.

      Beginning with a visit in early March by a delegation of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), in which Helsinki Watch participated, international monitoring organizations have been welcomed in Albania. A range of international monitors observed the March 31 elections.

U.S. Policy

      The Bush Administration recognized that human rights problems continue to exist in Albania, and for the most part played a positive role in 1991 by raising human rights concerns with the Albanian government and releasing aid only as reforms proceeded. However, the Administration squandered an opportunity to press for freer elections in March by renewing diplomatic relations before the elections had been held, at a time when serious deficiencies were apparent in the campaign.

      Diplomatic ties were renewed on March 15, after a break of over fifty years. According to U.S. government statements, the Bush Administration took the opportunity during prior negotiations to urge the Albanian government to speed reforms and to hold fair elections. In support of political pluralism in Albania, the Administration also received members of the Albanian opposition during the negotiation period.

      State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, announcing the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Albania and the United States, stated:

    We have had a number of meetings with the Albanians....In these meetings we have emphasized the importance of increased respect for human rights. We've also noted the elections coming up on March 31st, and we believe it's important for Western countries to support and encourage the process of reform in Albania.

      At the signing ceremony to re-establish diplomatic relations, Raymond Seitz, assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, remarked:

The United States supports and encourages the process of political and economic reform which has begun in Albania. This process will mark an important step forward when multiparty elections are held at the end of this month. We are pleased that Americans will be among foreign groups who will observe them. It will be important to the CSCE community of nations and to the world that these elections are both free and fair.2

      The Bush Administration was critical of the first multiparty elections in Albania, but called on the Albanian people to work with the new government to build a democratic state. On April 3, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler assessed the elections as follows:

[T]he March 31st elections were the first step on the long road to democracy in Albania....A partial foundation has been laid for political pluralism and democracy.

Based on reports from U.S. observers and other international election monitors, it appears that the electoral process fell short in several key areas of CSCE standards for free and fair elections.

There are also credible reports of widespread intimidation against opposition party candidates and activists during the campaign and on election day....We call upon authorities to investigate fully and openly all charges of electoral abuses and to propose appropriate measures to redress legitimate grievances.

She also noted the problem of unequal access to the media.

The State Department had been less critical of the same electoral conditions in advance of the balloting. Secretary Seitz, in the above-noted speech, failed to mention the limitations on opposition campaigning that were already fully apparent, suggesting instead that a technically correct balloting would suffice to guarantee free and fair elections.

      However, the State Department was outspoken in urging restraint during the tense emigration crisis in the weeks before the election. As thousands of Albanians waited on ships hoping to go to Italy, the State Department urged the Albanian government to refrain from violence. Spokesman Boucher stated: "Albanian authorities should guarantee respect for basic human rights, they should exercise restraint, and they should refrain from the use of violence in responding to the present situation." Troops stormed ships in Durres harbor on March 8, resulting in at least two deaths. In response, Boucher stated on March 11, "We regret the injury and as before we condemn the use of deadly force."

      The Bush Administration publicly criticized the post-election violence in the city of Shkoder. On April 4, the Administration officially protested the use of force against peaceful demonstrators and urged a full investigation. On April 19, spokesman Boucher stated:

The head of the U.S. team in Albania has urged the Albanian government that the investigation [into events in Shkoder] be thorough and that its conclusions be released promptly....We remain strongly opposed to the use of force against peaceful demonstrators who are exercising basic human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, and we would again call on the Albanian authorities to investigate these acts of violence thoroughly and promptly.

      On June 22, Secretary of State James Baker visited Albania, the first such visit ever by a U.S. secretary of state. During his visit, Secretary Baker called publicly for additional reforms in Albania, including the release of all political prisoners, full respect for religious and minority rights, and the elimination of the repressive secret police, the Sigurimi.

      During Secretary Baker's visit, he announced $6 million in aid for Albania, including two thousand tons of powdered milk and other foods, $1 million in medicine, and $250,000 in cash for the Albanian Red Cross. According to news reports, Baker made further aid contingent on continued economic and political reforms, including a government that contains representatives of the opposition.

      In late August, William Ryerson, who was appointed U.S. ambassador to Albania in late 1991, reported that military cargo planes from the Persian Gulf had delivered foodstuff to Albania and that additional deliveries were planned. This assistance was in addition to the aid package announced during Secretary Baker's June visit. In October, the United States also pledged $10.5 million to Albania as part of an aid package drawn up by the Group of 24 Western industrialized countries.

      Other positive Administration initiatives included sending technical teams to assist in drafting the new constitution and resolving other legal issues, as well as a series of U.S. Information Agency programs on journalism, market economics and education. Given Albania's long isolation, such programs are especially useful and welcome.

The Work Of Helsinki Watch

      With Albania's first contested elections under Communist rule scheduled for March 31, Helsinki Watch took part in an IHF fact-finding mission from March 7 to March 12 as part of the first team of independent human rights investigators known to have officially visited the country. The delegation met with senior government officials, including President Ramiz Alia; toured several prison and labor camps; conducted confidential interviews with current and former prisoners convicted of both political and common crimes; spoke extensively with members of opposition political parties and other newly founded independent organizations; and investigated several recent killings by Albanian security forces.

      Helsinki Watch issued a newsletter on March 27 concluding that despite the dramatic opening that had occurred in Albania since the December 1990 decree authorizing multiparty elections, significant human rights concerns remained. Helsinki Watch found that ongoing shortcomings _ particularly in the area of press freedom _ would affect the fairness of the elections, and recommended that opposition parties be given extensive access, on an equal basis with the Labor Party, to the national television and radio during the final days of the campaign.

      Helsinki Watch also urged the Albanian government to release all prisoners held for the peaceful expression of their views _ approximately ninety such prisoners were still detained at the time of the newsletter _ and, in the case of prisoners convicted of common crimes, to release or retry them in proceedings that meet all international requirements of due process. Helsinki Watch called on the government to reexamine the sentences of all those convicted of politically motivated common crimes and to rehabilitate released political prisoners. Finally, Helsinki Watch expressed concern about the apparent willingness of the Albanian authorities to resort to lethal force in the face of peaceful dissent, and urged that those who have used such force without justification be prosecuted and punished.

      Following the elections, Helsinki Watch analyzed their shortcomings in an article published in The Nation. On June 17, Helsinki Watch wrote Secretary of State James Baker, urging him to raise ongoing human rights concerns with the Albanian government during his visit to Albania on June 22. Helsinki Watch expressed concern about the continued detention of political prisoners, the failure of the Albanian government to release or retry those charged with common crimes, and the need for vigorous scrutiny, prosecution and punishment of those who have used force without justification. The letter concluded:

Helsinki Watch recognizes the significant progress made by the Albanian government toward respect for human rights over the last six months. However, the issues discussed above pose continuing human rights concerns that must be addressed if this process is to continue. The CSCE conference and your visit to Albania _ the first by an American Secretary of State _ provide valuable opportunities to raise these issues with the Albanian government.

      Helsinki Watch closely monitored human rights developments in Albania throughout the year and developed contacts with civic and political groups in the country. In November, a Helsinki Watch representative conducted a follow-up mission to Albania to evaluate the human rights situation. Meetings were held with the Forum for the Defense of Human Rights, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the legal adviser to President Ramiz Alia, staff members of the Prosecutor's Office, and representatives of the Association of Former Political Prisoners and the Greek and Gypsy minorities. Interviews were also conducted with numerous political leaders, journalists and lawyers.

      In December, Human Rights Watch honored Arben Puto, head of the Forum for the Defense of Human Rights, at its annual dinner honoring human rights monitors from around the world.

The five were the Agrarian, Democratic, Republican, Social Democrat and Socialist Parties.

As reported in the State Department's Dispatch, March 25, 1991.

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