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Investigation 09 Apr 15

Albania’s Judges Protect Each Other From the Law

The High Council of Justice turns a blind eye to judges’ misdeeds, perpetuating a culture of impunity in the corrupt justice system.

Flamur Vezaj
Albania President and head of the High Council of Justice Bujar Nishani | Photo by : LSA

A judge in the first-instance court of Shkodra, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, found himself between a rock and hard place after a number of citizens filed complaints against his rulings to Albania’s High Council of Justice, HCJ. 

An administrative probe carried out by the HCJ revealed that Judge Albano Cepele breached articles of the constitution and the criminal and civil procedural code in 34 cases.

“My vision and balance were impaired and I was receiving treatment in a neurological hospital,” the judge said by way of defence to the HCJ.

On April 15, 2014, the Minister of Justice, Nasip Naco, asked the HCJ to fire him on the grounds that he “had seriously discredited the reputation of a judge”.

Although Cepele had been suffering from sclerosis for years, he was still handling up to 590 cases a year. Minutes from the HCJ meeting on April 15, 2014 described Cepele as “a time bomb for the system”.

The HCJ meeting approved the minister’s request to fire Cepele - one of the rare occasions on which the Council agreed to dismiss a judge. 

However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the HCJ’s ruling and overturned it after the judge appealed. 

The HCJ is a collegial institution, which acts as a governing body for the judicial system in Albania. Composed of 15 members, it is headed by the President of Albania, Bujar Nishani.

Like the President, the Minister of Justice and the head of the Supreme Court sit on the council ex-officio. Nine other members of the council are judges and three are nominated by parliament.

In 2014 and 2015, the Minister of Justice asked the HCJ to take administrative measures, ranging from dismissal to warnings, against 28 judges.

However, the Council turned down most of his requests.

One problem is that while the minister is the only official that can request disciplinary proceeding against judges in the HCJ, he has only one vote in the Council.

“The HCJ acts as corporation that protects judges,” Naco told BIRN. “They are notready to fire their own, as they think that if they take such rulings one day, they will be dismissed in turn,” he added.

Albania’s justice system is widely perceived as corrupt and many local and international actors accuse the HCJ of doing little to reform the system.

Minutes of HCJ meetings during the last two years, obtained by BIRN, show the Council often turns a blind eye to judges’ misdeeds.

The minutes reveal also that the Justice Minister changed his request for disciplinary actions against judges in half of the cases that he brought.

Over the last year, Naco asked the HCJ to actually dismiss seven judges. The Council approved only two requests, against Cepele and Shtjefen Lleshi, a judge arrested in late 2013 on corruption charges.

In 13 cases, the HCJ handed disciplinary measures against judges, ranging from warnings or downgrading their positions to lower courts.

In 15 cases it took no measures, even when inspections by the Ministry of Justice or the HCJ inspectorate uncovered serious breaches in judges’ work. 

The minutes of the HCJ meetings reveal that in some cases the Council voted against the minister, while in the other cases, the minister himself changed his request to opt for a softer disciplinary measure.

Commonest breaches of the law:

HCJ meeting minutes analyzed by BIRN show the most common breaches of the law by Albanian judges concern filing arguments for verdicts late, procrastinating over cases for up to three years and breaching rulings of the Supreme Court.

 The HCJ has also considered judges who turn off the audio system during court hearings and others who cannot justify their wealth and assets to the High Inspectorate for the Declaration and Audit of Assets.

Albanian law considers such breaches as serious, but the HCJ has often justified them, citing judges’ heavy workload or their “innocence” of procedure. 

A former deputy head of the HCJ, Elvis Cefa, says a form of tacit agreement exists among the judges to protect each other.

Cefa also blames the poor inspections on the part of the Ministry of Justice, which he says help judges to escape disciplinary proceeding.

“Based on my experience, I would say that in front of a proper inspection and well structured proceeding, no judge found in breach of the law could defend himself, no matter how many friends he has in the HCJ,” Cefa told BIRN.

The records obtained by BIRN show that HCJ meetings often feature strong debates when the minister proposes the dismissal of a judge.

In some cases, it is the Minister of Justice who has been at the centre of the controversy.

In a HCJ meeting on February 4, 2014, Naco faced questions about a series of five inspections of judges that the ministry’s inspectorate conducted, which the Council had not been presented with.

According to the minutes, President Nishani, expressed concern that the deadline to file disciplinary proceedings against the judges was about to expire, and the inspections had still not been discussed in the Council. 

 “I can’t remember them all, but based on your concern Iwill inform the HCJ officially,” he said, during the meeting.

In the interview with BIRN, Naco blamed his predecessor, Eduard Halimi, for failing to hand him seven inspection reports about five judges, saying that after an administrative probe he had filed charges with the prosecutor’s office.

“Charges have been filed with the Tirana prosecutor’s office for all five cases to find the authors who hid the files, which made it possible for the timeframe for disciplinary proceedings to expire,” Naco said.

The minister complained that the HCJ is not living up to the government’s commitment to reform the justice system.

“In every case, the judges have the majority of votes in the Council,” he said. “These judges don’t want the status quo to change,” he added.

Not everyone agrees. Cefa, the former deputy head of the HCJ, blamed the minister for the failure of disciplinary proceeding against judges. “The concentration of power in the minister’s hand to initiate disciplinary proceedings does not help,” he said.

“Disciplinary proceedings are destroyed by the Minister of Justice himself, who has abused the executive power handed to him by the law,” he claimed.

Judges’ assets under investigation:

During 2014, eight judges were under criminal investigation by the prosecutor’s office. As with the HCJ’s administrative proceedings, the results of these investigations have been opaque.

Two judges were found guilty of corruption in first-instance rulings but they appealed and their cases await trial.

The two were Shtjefen Lleshi, from the court of Puke, who was jailed for three years, and Dhimiter Pojanaku, from the court of Pogradec, jailed for three years and six months.

The prosecutor’s office currently has six judges under investigation, accused of concealing their wealth. One who is a member of the HCJ, Gjin Gjoni.

Other judges under investigation are Ken Dhima and Herieta Cela, Osman Alia, Aridan Kaline dhe Qani Hasa.

The minister has asked the HCJ to fire most of the judges under investigation, but the Council has turned down all of his requests.

Albania’s High Inspectorate for the Declaration and Audit of Assets, HIDDA has referred the six judges being probed for hiding their wealth to the prosecutor’s office.  

They are accused of hiding assets or cash ranging from a few thousands euro to as much as 2 million euro.

Naco says that the ministry is paying close attention to judges’ declarations of assets but again complains that the HCJ often rejects his attempts to bring disciplinary proceedings.

“The income that these judges pretend they secured from teaching or from publishing books would make even Albania’s best known writer, Ismail Kadare blush,” he concluded.

This article was produced as part of the initiative “Raising Awareness About Corruption Through Investigative Reporting,” supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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