U.S. Department of State: Kosovo facing corruption, interference in judiciary

The U.S. Department of State says that the most significant human rights issues in Kosovo during 2017 included assaults on journalists; violence against displaced persons; endemic government corruption; lack of judicial independence, including failures of due process and selective implementation of decisions; and violence against members of ethnic minorities and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.

The annual U.S Department of State Kosovo report on human rights practices for 2017 emphasizes that the government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses in the security services or elsewhere in the government. Many in the opposition, civil society, and the media believed that senior officials engaged in corruption with impunity.

According to the report the EULEX and domestic prosecutors continued prosecuting war crimes cases arising from the 1998-99 conflict. “As of August EULEX prosecutors were working on 37 war crimes cases. Under the understanding in effect, EULEX may be assigned new cases only in exceptional circumstances, with approval of the Kosovo Prosecutorial Council. The Special Prosecution of the Republic of Kosovo (SPRK) office was, as of August, investigating approximately 104 war crimes cases, of which 44 had been suspended because the alleged perpetrators’ whereabouts were unknown,” it is stated in the report.

In the report is mentioned also the December 22, initiative of a group of parliamentarians from the governing coalition to abrogate the law on Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecution Office.

“Some parliamentarians reported doing so under instruction from political leaders. The initiative stalled under pressure from opposition leaders and the international community, but supporters continued to push for abrogation through the end of the year. The SPO had not issued any indictments as of year’s end," it is stated in the report.

In the report are included also the conditions in the prison and dentition centers reporting that these centers met some international standards, but significant problems persisted in penitentiaries, specifically, the lack of rehabilitative programs, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, corruption, exposure to radical religious or political views, and substandard medical care.

The U.S. Department of State report mentioned that Kosovo government, with the help of international forensics experts, continued to investigate the death of Vetevendosje party activist Astrit Dehari, who allegedly committed suicide in prison in 2016.

“In September the Kosovo chief state prosecutor announced that the Austrian Internal Affairs Ministry completed the analysis of the video footage of the surveillance cameras in the Prizren Detention Center at the time of Dehari’s death. The analysis found no sign of manipulation of the raw video surveillance footage. The State Prosecutor’s office stated it would further analyze evidence related to this case,” it is stated in the report.

Addressing the issue of fair public trial in the report is mentioned that Kosovo constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary did not always provide due process.

“According to the European Commission, NGOs, and the Office of the Ombudsperson, the administration of justice was slow and lacked means of ensuring accountability by judicial officials. Judicial structures were subject to political interference, with disputed appointments and unclear mandates. Efficiency in case resolution improved during the year, but the courts were burdened by a case backlog. During the first six months of the year, the courts resolved 170,000 cases and received 130,000 new ones. According to the Kosovo Judicial Council, 358,135 civil and criminal administrative and commercial cases awaited trial as of July. In addition, 154,596 minor offenses awaited adjudication,” it is stated in the report.

In the report is mentioned also implementation of the Agreement on judiciary in the north. On October 24, the president issued a decree appointing 40 Kosovo Serb judges and 13 prosecutors as agreed under the Dialogue Agreement on the Judiciary. Courts in Mitrovice/a North, which had previously operated under the Serbian judicial system, were recognized as Kosovo courts and began implementing Kosovo law. A backlog of 8,000 civil and criminal cases from the four Serb-majority municipalities, which had been transferred to Vushtrri in 2016, was returned to Mitrovice/a North for processing.

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. While the government generally respected this right, credible reports persisted that some public officials, politicians, businesses, and radical religious groups sought to intimidate media representatives, according to the report.

“The media also encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions as provided by law. An Independent Media Commission regulates broadcast frequencies, issues licenses to public and private broadcasters, and establishes broadcasting policies,” it is concluded in the report:

“Growing financial difficulties of media outlets put the editorial independence of all media at risk. While some self-sufficient media outlets adopted editorial and broadcast policies independent of political and business interests, those with fewer resources sometimes accepted financial support in exchange for positive coverage or for refraining from publishing negative stories harmful to funders’ interests.”

According to the report there were no reports of direct censorship of print or broadcast media; however, journalists claimed that pressure from politicians and organized criminal groups frequently resulted in self-censorship.

“Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical or job security. Journalists occasionally received offers of financial benefits in exchange for positive reporting or for abandoning an investigation. According to the AJK, government officials, as well as suspected criminals, verbally threatened journalists for perceived negative reporting. According to some editors, government agencies and corporations withdrew advertising from newspapers that published material critical of them,” it is stated in the report.

According to the report freedom of movement across the sAusterlitz Bridge connecting Mitrovica North and South was impeded despite a 2016 agreement between the prime ministers of Kosovo and Serbia to open the bridge. North Mitrovica’s mayor halted reconstruction work on the northern side of the main bridge in April citing security reasons and a rise in interethnic incidents. As of September work had not resumed. The Austerlitz Bridge remained open to pedestrians and other bridges connecting Mitrovica North and South remained fully open.

In the report it is stated that Kosovo Serbs in four northern municipalities were not able to register births, marriages, or divorces and thus obtain official government documents because their existing documents of life events were registered only under the government of Serbia’s parallel system.

During the year the government worked to establish civil registry offices in Kosovo-Serb majority areas in the north of Kosovo, although they struggled to open them and implement a new arrangement to permit registration. At the end of 2016, the Civil Registration Agency announced that citizens who had previously been registered in the country’s system could renew identification cards, passports, drivers licenses, and vehicle registrations in Zubin Potok, Leposavic, Zvecan, and Mitrovica, all Serb-majority municipalities.

According to the findings of the report the law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively and corruption remained a serious problem.

“A lack of effective judicial oversight and general weakness in the rule of law contributed to the problem. Corruption cases were routinely subject to repeated appeal, and the judicial system often allowed statutes of limitation to expire without trying cases,” is concluded in the report.

In the report are mentioned also data on violation of children’s rights, forced marriages, sexual exploration of children, as well as violation of rights of the LGBTI community.

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