Before his controversial appointment as defence minister, Talat Xhaferi received a suspended jail sentence for obstructing a policeman in his duties, Balkan Insight can reveal.
Balkan Insight has discovered that Macedonia’s controversial new defence chief received a six-month suspended jail term in 2008.
A court in Tetovo found him guilty of obstructing a police officer after a rally of his Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, an ethnic Albanian party that is now part of the ruling coalition.
According to the final verdict from 2011, which Balkan Insight has obtained, the Tetovo court decided not to send Xhaferi, by then an MP, to prison, but put him on a two-year probation period. That expired this month.
Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski proposed Xhaferi as defence minister on February 18, before the two-year probation period expired.
Macedonia’s small opposition Dignity party, which represents police and army veterans from the 2001 armed conflict, said the verdict was another argument against allowing Xhaferi to preside over the army that he fought against in 2001.
Dignity insists that a former commander of the now disbanded and amnestied Albanian insurgent force cannot be fit for such a post.
“We are talking about a man who defected from the Macedonian Army in 2001, who became a commander of the NLA [National Liberation Army] and who shot and maybe killed Macedonian soldiers and police,” said the leader of Dignity, Stojance Angelov.
A professor at the Skopje Faculty of Law, who insisted on anonymity, told Balkan Insight that the law did not prevent people who have been given jail sentences from performing state functions unless the court, in addition to the sentence, imposed a specific ban.
“This is more of a moral dilemma. Should a person convicted of violence against a member of the security forces lead those same forces?” the professor asked.
Balkan Insight can reveal that the public prosecution in Tetovo filed indictment number 325 against Xhaferi on June 25, 2008, for “participation in a crowd that prevented an official person (policeman) from carrying out official duties”.
Article 384 of Macedonia’s criminal code prescribes prison sentences of three months to three years for such offences. A leader of such a group may be jailed for up to five years.
Proceedings before the court in Tetovo and later in Gostivar, where the verdict was appealed, lasted over three years.
The first-instance court in Tetovo found Xhaferi guilty of obstructing a police officer in October 14, 2010. He received a suspended sentence of six months conditional on committing another offence in the next two years.
Xhaferi appealed but the Court of Appeals in Gostivar dismissed his plea and confirmed the first verdict. The court in Gostivar ruled that the six-month sentence should cover the period of June 13-19, 2008, when Xhaferi was apparently in custody.
“The act for which he was charged was committed at the intersection between Marshal Tito and Vidoe Smilevski Bato streets in Tetovo, near the Tobacco Factory on May 29, around 9pm,” the public prosecutor in Tetovo, Zulkjufli Rakipi recalled.
“The Gostivar court then rejected the appeal and upheld the verdict against Xhaferi on February 14, 2011,” he told Balkan Insight.
The incident for which the minister was sentenced was one of many that occurred before the 2008 general election.
Xhaferi was then an MP for the DUI, which felt frustrated about having remained in opposition despite having beaten all its Albanian rivals in the previous general election in 2006.
That year, Gruevski’s main ruling VMRO DPMNE party invited the DUI’s rival, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, into government. This left the DUI, which won more votes than DPA, feeling duped.
It was only after the 2008 early general elections that VMRO DPMNE invited the DUI to swap places with the DPA, which again lost the race in the ethnic Albanian bloc.
The coalition deal was struck just few days after the incident that involved Xhaferi.
However, the election incidents, which were especially pronounced in mainly Albanian parts of the country, have left a stain on Macedonia’s democratic record.
The violence was largely attributed to clashes between DUI and DPA and involved senior political and police officials linked to the two parties. Both parties blamed each other for the violence.
On May 30, 2008, police minister Gordana Jankulovska named Xhaferi as a figure responsible for serious incidents in Tetovo.
“Xhaferi threatened police officers and the deputy commander of the police station in Grupcin with liquidation,” Jankulovska claimed.
She is now in the government with Xhaferi, sharing responsibility for the two main security sectors, police and defence.
"The government has double standards and turns a blind eye to violent members of DUI who took part in the election incidents," the DPA said in a statement released in June 2008.
After the incident in Tetovo, Xhaferi left Macedonia, but was arrested re-entering the country at a border crossing with Kosovo. He spent seven days in detention and was released on May 20, 2008.
“The Court established there was no basis for the detention to continue. Talat Xhaferi was caught entering the country. The prosecution did not appeal this decision,” judge Tomislav Boskoski, who decided to release Xhaferi from custody, told Balkan Insight.
Once Xhaferi received parliamentary immunity as an MP in June 2008, the court was unable to continue proceedings against him.
Later, in August 2008, a parliamentary commission rejected the court’s request that Xhaferi be stripped of his immunity so he could be tried. This happened on August 28, 2008, after Xhaferi reported to the court willingly, on the day that parliament was to decide on his immunity.
The trial was finalised at the end of February 2011, when the Court of Appeals issued its decision, and in March 2011 it was served to Xhaferi and the public prosecutor.
Balkan Insight asked the government’s spokesman whether Prime Minister Gruevski knew that Xhaferi had been convicted when he suggested his promotion.
Via an SMS message, Aleksandar Georgiev told Balkan Insight that he would reply - but he had not done so by the time of publication.
The ministry of defence said it could not respond to Balkan Insight’s inquiry about when the new minister was officially released from probation and whether he personally sought to erase the probation from the records after the two years expired, saying the matter was of personal nature.
In 2001, Macedonia saw armed conflict between government forces and the ethnic Albanian insurgents of the now disbanded National Liberation Army, NLA.
The conflict ended with the signing of a peace accord, which granted greater rights to Albanians who make up about a quarter of the population. The NLA leadership was granted an amnesty and later formed the DUI.
The appointment of Xhaferi, who during the 2001 conflict was known as ‘Commander Forina’, has fiercely divided Macedonia.
Ethnic Macedonian veterans of the conflict have launched an attempt to gather the 150,000 signatures they need to put the appointment to a referendum.
Ethnically-charged protests in Skopje escalated into clashes with riot police on Friday and Saturday over Xhaferi’s appointment.
While young ethnic Macedonians first rioted on Friday against the appointment of Xhaferi, Albanians came out the following day in a counter-protest.
About 30 people were injured over two days, while cars were demolished and buses torched.
The cost of the damage in the riots was estimated at 500,000 euro. Police have since stepped up their presence at key intersections in Skopje.
A new Albanian protest has already been called for Friday. According to social networks, the rally will start after midday prayers in mosques.