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Shqip 02 May 16

Kosovo Weapons Chief Accused of Selling Police Guns on Black Market

A Ministry of Interior official responsible for tackling illegal gun ownership in Kosovo stands accused of moonlighting as a black-market arms dealer, it is alleged.

Petrit Collaku BIRN Pristina
Photo: Gliu

The weapons chief of Kosovo’s Ministry of Interior faces charges of orchestrating a string of corrupt tenders to purchase guns and bullets for the country’s police force, before hawking some of the deadly hardware in a Pristina café.

Under an indictment issued by the European Union’s rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, Kadrush Koliqi and four other people are alleged to have formed an organised crime gang suspected of fixing a series of tenders for machine guns, ammunition and surveillance equipment.  

Along with Xhevahire Vatoci, the head of the police directorate of procurement, and Ragip Bunjaku, the chief of police administration, Koliqi is accused of abusing his official position to benefit two businessmen – Astrit Pira and Armend Selimi – steering up to 3.1 million euros from police coffers to six companies that the two men controlled.

EULEX buys ammo from suspected “organised crime” network

While the EU rule of law mission was investigating Astrit Pira for his alleged part in corrupt weapons deals, the mission signed a contract with a firm owned by his wife, BIRN has discovered.

In January 2014, EULEX said it had signed a 55,000-euro deal to buy ammunition from Pristina-based Sodex Group shpk. Zaide Pira is named in Kosovo’s business registry as the owner of the firm.

Though not a suspect in the case of rigged weapons tenders, Zaide Pira’s name appears in the indictment against her husband and his four co-accused as she is listed as joint owner of NTP Friends, one of the companies involved.

Zaide Pira is also listed as one of a handful of people suspected of making repeated cash withdrawals to build up a 220,000-euro fund that prosecutors say was used to make “black payments” to officials.

In response, EULEX said it would not bar a company from bidding for a tender until allegations of impropriety were proven.

They deny all charges, according to the indictment, which has not previously been published. None of the officials or their lawyers have responded to requests for comment for this story, but Selimi, responding on behalf of both businessmen, told BIRN the charges were “baseless”.

The five worked together to rig at least three tenders between 2009 and 2011 using insider information, by eliminating more favourable bids on spurious grounds and by accepting the goods at vastly inflated prices.
The sums involved represent the lion’s share of the police’s procurement budget for those years.

All five suspects were initially arrested but none are currently in custody. The three police officials were suspended, though two are now back at work in different posts, including Koliqi.

EULEX,  which handles high-profile cases of war crimes, corruption and organised crime in Kosovo, said the police officials were rewarded  in cash from a 220,000-euro “black payments” fund accumulated by Pira, Selimi and family members through 23 cash withdrawals at just below 10,000 euros each, the threshold for triggering money laundering enquiries.

"This demonstrates illegal activity, with the suspicion being that the large deposits were used to create a hidden fund for use of "black payments", namely bribes of officials to win tenders,” according to the indictment.

Despite the allegations, none of the five is indicted specifically for bribery. EULEX said it could not offer any explanations for this as the case is active.

Kadrush Koliqi
Photo: www.kosovopolice.com

Koliqi – who had addressed press conferences on official efforts to tackle the dogged problem of illegal gun ownership in Kosovo – is then accused of further cashing in on the deal by selling on some of the goods, including bullets for Heckler & Koch guns and AK-47 assault rifles on the black market, negotiating with buyers at a downtown cafe in the capital.

The indictment was initially thrown out  by a Pristina judge in May last year on the grounds it had taken the prosecution more than three years to bring the matter to court, beyond the legal deadline of two years from the start of an investigation.

But this decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in December and a new trial is due in the Pristina district court. The trial date has yet to be set.

Police guns for sale

A protected witness told prosecutors that he saw Koliqi “handing over bullets for Kloch [sic] and AK-47 and arranging other sales by telephone” in 2010 at the now closed Green Café near Pristina’s football stadium.

“He [the witness] also overheard numerous significant discussions about the sale and purchase of weapons indicating corruption and the involvement of officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Kosovo Police in illegal weapons dealings,” the indictment states.

The alleged sales took place between June and September 2010, at the same time as Koliqi was involved in procuring and importing large quantities of weaponry for police – including Heckler & Koch guns and bullets for AK-47 rifles. Pira and Selimi, who won the tenders, sourced the goods from international arms producers and brokers in Germany, Austria and the United States.

The Allegations:

Businessman Armend Selimi: Suspected of organised crime; unauthorised supply, transport, production, exchange or sale of weapons; and fraud

Businessman Astrit Pira: Organised crime; unauthorised supply, transport, production, exchange or sale of weapons; fraud

Xhevahire Vatovci, head of the directorate of procurement of Kosovo Police: Organised crime; unauthorised supply, transport, production, exchange or sale of weapons; fraud; and abuse of official position or authority

Kadrush Koliqi, Head of division for weapons and ammunition, department of public safety, Ministry of Internal Affairs: Organised crime; unauthorised supply, transport, production, exchange or sale of weapons; fraud; and Abuse of official position or authority

Ragip Bunjaku, head of administration of Kosovo Police: Organised crime; unauthorised supply, transport, production, exchange or sale of weapons; fraud; and abuse of official position or authority.  

Koliqi is also alleged to have granted import permits for weapons as part of the suspect tender process, despite not having the authority to do so.

Some of the imported weapons were later found in cardboard boxes at a police base. “Large number of weapons and ammunition, including MP, G36 and shotguns, [were] improperly stored at the Logistics Log Base in cardboard containers, unlocked, unsupervised and unguarded,” the indictment reads.
The Kosovo police declined to comment on whether it had investigated the sale of its equipment and into whose hands the guns and equipment had landed.

The deals

The indictment focuses on three tenders in 2009 and 2010 for hardware including submachine guns, night-vision goggles, grenade launchers, grenades and carbines.

Prosecutors say Pira and Selimi illegally overcharged police in the three deals by over 500,000 euros.
In the first contract, from June 2009, the price offered by NTP Friends - owned by Astrit Pira and his wife Zaide - was initially the most expensive at 770,000 euros, , but was slashed to just under 600,000 in handwriting as bids were being opened. As the cheapest offer in the end, the bid won.  Police then reduced the weapons order, ensuring NTP Friends still made a healthy profit, the indictment alleges.

The following month, Pira submitted a bid for another tender on behalf of an Austrian-registered firm called Nowar Security Equipment Gmbh. It was again the most expensive, but when Nowar said it would not lower its offer, a competing bid from Bulgarian firm EDS was eliminated on the grounds it had “failed to supply samples in time”, though prosecutors say it had not been given the time it was legally allowed to do so.

Armend Selimi and Astrit Pira
Photo: Facebook

The contract was awarded to the Austrian company, but the invoice for the goods provided was issued by a Pristina-based company called Nowar NTSH, which prosecutors allege is controlled by Pira and Selimi through a proxy. The Interior Ministry paid Nowar NTSH 586,000 euros.

Prosecutors say the final suspicious tender, from July 2010, was compromised by the leaking of confidential information. NTP Friends – owned by Pira and his wife - was the most expensive bidder, but won the contract anyway.

“The same web of companies would not win each and every tender from the one organisation [Kosovo Police] over such an extended time period in fair and transparent procurement procedures,” the indictment reads.

Selimi, responding to BIRN’s questions for himself and his partner Pira, dismissed the allegations, pointing out that the prosecutor did not take into account the fact that their companies needed to charge more than the price offered by suppliers in order to cover costs such as customs duties and income tax.

Referring to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the initial dismissal of their case, Selimi said: “Rarely can you find a worst case of human rights’ violation as when selective justice is applied – when two persons under same circumstances are offered different treatment before a tribunal.”

He added the allegations of bribery in indictment were “speculation” and welcomed the fact the prosecutor had not brought charges related these claims.

This investigation is produced by BIRN as a part of Paper Trail to Better Governance project.