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08 Nov 17

Vicious Cycle: Kosovo’s Battered Women Syndrome

 

Kosovo’s international isolation makes it a legal “black hole” for victims of domestic violence caught in a cycle of discrimination and double standards.

Shqipe Gjocaj Pristina, Tirana, Podgorica

The way she tells it, she was a familiar face at the police station in southern Kosovo where she had so often sought sanctuary from her violent husband.

She was in her early 20s when the marriage descended into a nightmare of abuse. Among other tortures, he taunted her with a pistol. One day, she got hold of the gun and took it to the station, fearing for her life.

“The policeman who dealt with me happened to be my husband’s friend,” said the woman, now 31. “He told me that if I were his wife, I wouldn’t have been able to bring the gun because he would have killed me first.”

In the end, it was she who killed her husband. She cut his throat with a razor.

Sitting in a grimy office chair in the interview room of Kosovo’s only jail for women, on the outskirts of the town of Lipjan just south of Pristina, she reflected on her 12-year sentence for murder.

Eight years and four months served, fewer than four years to go.

The judge was too harsh, she said, her eyelashes thick with mascara from a vocational beauty class at the prison. What about all the years of violence, the unanswered cries for help?

Sevdije Morina, deputy head prosecutor in Pristina, described the sentence as “a normal conviction” that did not take into account mitigating circumstances.

“Her husband really made her suffer,” she said.

Victims of domestic violence in Kosovo are often at the mercy of a justice system that fails to protect them, and lacks leniency when desperation boils over into self-defence or retaliation, lawyers and rights activists say.

As in other patriarchal societies in the region, discrimination and double standards toward violent crime by men and women shape the priorities of overburdened police, prosecutors and judges.

But Kosovo is unique in being cut off from key instruments of European justice due to its unresolved political status as a country, giving activists few levers for change.

“We call it the black hole of Europe,” said Hilmi Jashari, Kosovo’s independent ombudsman, whose office defends the public’s interests.

“Kosovo is actually the only country [in Europe] where citizens can’t go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.”

Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian country that declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is not recognised by some nations including Serbia, Russia and China.

That means it has been unable to join the Council of Europe, which upholds civil and political rights across 47 member states. The court in Strasbourg, France, is the council’s arbiter.

What happens in Strasbourg does, in theory, influence how Kosovo tackles domestic violence and protects victims. Kosovo’s constitution states that its laws should be interpreted in line with rulings by the court.

But since Strasbourg has no power to impose penalties on Kosovo, the constitution’s lofty principles rarely affect decisions made on the ground.

Such decisions involve rank-and-file members of a justice system buckling under the weight of too many cases in one of Europe’s poorest economies.

They determine how police and prosecutors act on reports of domestic abuse and whether judges issue restraining orders.

And in extreme cases where victims turn the table on their tormentors, judges have to decide appropriate sentences for killers suffering from battered person syndrome, a form of psychological trauma caused by prolonged abuse.

“The European Court of Human Rights doesn’t ask whether you have people to do the job, or whether you can afford it,” said prosecutor Morina.

“Human rights must be respected, and when violated, the state would collapse on its knees with the sanctions it would receive [if Kosovo were a member of the Council of Europe] ... It would be the people holding the state accountable.”

Ombudsman Jashari cited Italy as an example of a country that has improved its response to domestic violence as a result of years of rulings from the European Court of Human Rights.

In one such recent ruling, in March, the court decided that Italian authorities had failed to protect a mother and son by not acting swiftly on a complaint of prolonged domestic violence that resulted in the son’s murder and the mother’s attempted murder by her husband.

Demonstrators in Pristina express anger following the murder of Diana Kastrati, a 27-year-old student killed by her husband in 2011 after a judge rejected her request for a restraining order. Photo: Amy di Giacomo

Behind closed doors

At the Lipjan Correctional Centre for Women and Minors, a compound of barbed wire and concrete surrounded by fields, a handful of women convicted of murdering their spouses described the horrors they endured before they snapped.

Prison rules forbid them from being identified.

“He used to beat me, torture me and provoke me with anonymous calls and messages,” said a 45-year-old inmate serving 11 years for murdering her husband of an arranged marriage.

Another woman, 24, was serving a 13-year sentence for murder. She said she shot her husband after he started attacking their little girl.

“I didn’t want to kill him,” she said. “I just wanted to scare him.”

Only a tiny number of victims go on to kill. Lipjan prison was home to 17 woman convicted of murder; six were doing time for killing their partners.

“Women in Kosovo face economic and social problems,” said Edi Gusia, chief executive of the Agency for Gender Equality, part of the prime minister’s office.

“They’re unemployed and economically dependent, since they don’t have inheritance rights from their parents. Without a home, they remain in a cycle of violence and in some cases that has resulted in deaths."

Legally, women in Kosovo have equal rights to inherit property but many are unaware of the law or are reluctant to use it.

He used to beat me, torture me and provoke me with anonymous calls and messages”

- a 45-year-old inmate serving 11 years for killing her husband

Fatmire Haliti, a lawyer for the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims, said a law giving the president discretionary powers to grant parole should be used to counter overly harsh sentences for battered women driven to violence.

Since 2010, Kosovo’s Law on Pardon has benefited 86 men and five women convicted of various crimes.

The Legal Landscape

Kosovo has robust laws for tackling domestic violence but often fails at the last mile when it comes to implementation, rights groups say.

The Law on Gender Equality protects and promotes equality between men and women as a fundamental building block of democracy.

Meanwhile, the Law on Protection against Domestic Violence guarantees the right to live without fear of physical, verbal and mental violence, curbs on free movement and other acts of harassment.

The constitution says laws should be interpreted in line with key international agreements that Kosovo is not party to because of its unresolved legal status as a country.

These include the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Council of Europe’s so-called Istanbul Convention on tackling violence against women. The constitutional court can decide if the state is acting in accordance with these and other treaties.

A number of initiatives aim to strengthen women’s rights in Kosovo.

The Programme on Gender Equality, launched in 2006, aims to integrate equality into public policy. A 2016 national action plan on combating domestic violence provides tools to stop abuse, provide protection and help victims reintegrate into society.

Despite these laws and initiatives, experts say the fight against domestic violence is hindered by old-fashioned mindsets, including the widespread view that violence between spouses is a private family matter.

“When you look into the women’s profiles, you see the domestic abuse they suffered, the horrible circumstances they were forced to live in, and the motives behind their criminal deeds,” Haliti said.

“Most of these women are mothers whose children have to stay in the shelters for abandoned children. All such factors must be taken into account when implementing the Law on Pardon.”

Heset Loku, director of Lipjan prison, said he thought several inmates deserved to be pardoned due to their vulnerable backgrounds and good behaviour in prison.

The justice ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Rights groups say crime statistics only hint at the scale of abuse behind closed doors in the country of 1.8 million people. Up to 90 per cent of domestic violence cases go unreported, the Agency for Gender Equality has estimated.

In 2016, police received 870 reports of domestic violence, mostly against women, leading to 243 arrests, according to the Directorate of Police in Community and Prevention. Police referred the remaining cases to prosecutors or centres for social work.

A survey in 2015 by the Kosova Women’s Network, an umbrella group of women’s rights organisations, found that 68 per cent of women had suffered domestic violence in their lifetime.

More than 20 per cent of male and female respondents thought it was sometimes acceptable for a husband to beat his wife.

“Kosovo doesn’t have the capacity to address domestic violence — neither to protect people from it nor to investigate it,” said Tahire Haxholli, head of the Kosovo police unit that deals with domestic violence and child abuse.

“It’s a matter of government. There must be a solid budget to help Kosovo police do their job well.”

The scourge has long been on the agenda of civil society groups helping to rebuild Kosovo after conflict with Serbia in the late 1990s.

But nothing sparked public debate like two high-profile cases that underlined the state’s failure to protect women from prolonged abuse.

In 2011, Diana Kastrati, a 27-year-old university student from Pristina, sought a restraining order after her husband repeatedly threatened and stalked her. A judge denied her request.

Three weeks later, her husband shot her as she walked to class.

He fled the country and is thought to be living in Spain, lawyers for Kastrati’s family say. Since Kosovo is not a member of the International Police Organization, Interpol, and has no bilateral extradition agreement with Spain, it has no way to get him back.

“Diana Kastrati’s death is the state’s responsibility,” said lawyer Artan Qerkini, who represented her parents in a landmark case before the constitutional court.

“It hasn’t acted in accordance with the legal and constitutional dispositions to protect the life of an individual despite serious information that she was in danger.”

In 2013, the court ruled that the state had violated Kastrati’s rights guaranteed by the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. The family is seeking compensation through the constitutional court.

While the case marked an important precedent, ombudsman Jashari said that without the possibility of hefty sanctions from Strasbourg, “everything is still at the discretion of public authorities inside the country”.

Meanwhile, Zejnepe Bytyqi Berisha, a 39-year-old woman from a village near the southern town of Suhareka, had endured 16 years of violence at the hands of her husband, Nebi Bytyqi.

The man had a long rap sheet. She had reported him to police repeatedly over 13 years but they did nothing.

One night in October 2015, he stabbed her 20 times until the life drained out of her. He also injured their teenage daughter as she tried to stop him.

Nebi Bytyqi was charged with aggravated murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. He got 12 years.

A key part of his defence was that he was acting out of jealousy, “based on the suspicion that his wife cheated on him with a policemen from Suhareka”, as Bytyqi’s defence lawyer put it outside the courtroom.

Prosecutor Morina said lawyers defending violent men often plead diminished responsibility for their crimes due to temporary insanity.

“Where they want to, the neuropsychiatrists can make a sane person insane,” she said.

Prosecutors appealed Nebi Bytyqi’s sentence in August. On decision day, dozens of supporters joined the family in a vigil outside the Palace of Justice on the outskirts of Pristina. They held a giant banner: “Justice for Zejnepe.”

The appeals court added half a decade to Bytyqi’s sentence, making it 17 years.

Activists light candles in Tirana following the murder of Fildeze Hafizi, an Albanian judge who was killed by her ex-husband, allegedly after years of threats. Photo: BIRN/Loreta Cuka

Regional scourge

Across the Balkans, domestic abuse blights patriarchal societies where — for some men at least — machismo and aggression go hand in hand.

In Montenegro, Kosovo’s western neighbour, more than 67 per cent of married women have suffered violence by a spouse, according to a 2012 study by the SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence.

Data from the Judicial Council, which oversees judges in the country of 620,000, shows that prosecutors tend to downplay domestic violence by routing cases to misdemeanour rather than criminal courts or encouraging reconciliation.

Last year, almost 90 per cent of domestic violence cases — more than 2,000 of them — went to misdemeanour courts in Montenegro. Many involved serious bodily harm. Fewer than 30 per cent resulted in fines or prison sentences.

“I was talking to some of the prosecutors and they said, ‘Violence cases are not our priority. They’re easily solved, and we have huge cases of corruption and organised crime,’” said Maja Raicevic, head of the Women’s Rights Centre, a non-governmental organisation in Podgorica.

Over the past three years, five Montenegrin women have been murdered by partners.

“Four of them repeatedly reported violence to the police and different institutions and didn’t get proper protection,” Raicevic said.

But she said rights groups were starting to lean on international conventions, especially the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW, known as the world’s bill of rights for women.

“If the CEDAW committee decides there were violations of women’s rights by the institutions, then it’s legally binding for the state to change that kind of practice.”

Kosovo is the only country in Europe that has not signed up to CEDAW.

Albania ratified the convention in 1994. But like Kosovo, it has a long way to go when it comes to domestic violence, justice experts say.

“We are pretty much the same nation,” said Zoje Jaka, director of Ali Demi prison, Albania’s only jail for women. “We have the same mindset and the same approach to the law, Albania and Kosovo.”

“I’m going to cut you and then burn you with salt, and pierce you with hot wire”

- the words of an alleged Albanian stalker, as quoted by the woman who killed him

The recent murder of a judge has come to symbolise Albania’s failure to protect women at risk. Fildeze Hafizi was killed by her ex-husband in late August after years of threats.

A few days after the murder, demonstrators in Tirana threw red paint at the justice ministry and marched on parliament. “Killing does not make you a man, it makes you a killer,” one placard read.

Not everyone was outraged though. On social media, plenty of people defended Hafizi’s killer, who has been charged with murder and admits to the crime.

“To hell with that whore who built a career with her husband’s money and kicked out the man who made her what she was,” one Facebook user wrote.

According to the General Directorate of Prisons, 816 men were serving murder sentences in Albania as of July, compared with 14 women.

At the Ali Demi prison, a cluster of red-roofed buildings overlooked by guard towers in a residential district of Tirana, many of the women doing time for murder had killed husbands or stalkers.

A recent book by Albanian television journalist Eni Vasili documents the circumstances that led to some of their crimes.

Fatbardha Gjonaj from the northern village of Mat was sentenced to 12 years for murdering a stalker who threatened her with rape at gunpoint.

“If you don’t come with me, your brother will be dead in a week,” she recalled him saying on the day she killed him with her father’s automatic gun, when she was 26. “And I’m going to take you and lock you in a deserted house. I’m going to cut you and then burn you with salt, and pierce you with hot wire.”

In January, Gjonaj was pardoned.

The Ali Demi prison in Tirana is Albania’s only jail for women. Photo: Shqipe Gjocaj

‘Real men’

If you want to end violence against women, say legal experts, start by breaking the cycle where it begins — with young men.

“We rarely speak about violence against children and violence against teenage boys,” said Morina, Kosovo’s deputy head prosecutor.

“Our families are quite authoritarian and a lot of these young men get beaten up and violently abused by their fathers, uncles and grandfathers, demanding that they be ‘real men.’”

Women often bear the brunt of this brutalisation, especially in traditional communities in Kosovo and Albania where customary laws have long devalued women.

Since the Middle Ages, customary Albanian laws known as the Kanun, or Canon, of Leke Dukagjini have served as a means for regulating social life.

While the Kanun’s influence on modern Albanian and Kosovo society is debatable, it traditionally placed a premium on men’s lives, justifying revenge killings of relatives of men who spilled male blood, for example.

The flip side is that women’s lives were deemed far less valuable.

“The blood of a woman is not equal to the blood of a man,” the Kanun says, speaking of marriage. Elsewhere, it compares a woman to “a sack, made to endure as long as she lives in her husband’s house”.

Some experts see echoes of such thinking in the way many men treat women today.

The blood of a woman is not equal to the blood of a man”

- the Kanun, or Canon, of Leke Dukagjini, a body of customary Albanian law

“The meaning of gender roles and norms about what it means to be a man, a woman, a boy or a girl, have their references in the Kanun,” said Nita Luci, an anthropologist at the University of Pristina. “They’re enshrined in everyday life and find support in every social institution.”

Criminal justice experts also point to double standards in attitudes towards male and female convicts, regardless of crimes.

When men fall foul of the law, families often do everything they can to get the best lawyers, selling land, cars or tractors or taking out loans.

By contrast, many women who break the law are shunned by family and friends, even when they themselves have been victims of violence.

“During my experience in the correctional system in Albania, I noticed double gender standards regarding violent crimes,” said Klejda Ngjela, a project manager at the Albanian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group in Tirana.

“There was little tolerance for women who killed. On the other hand, there was an evident tendency to justify men who have killed their wives, especially when jealousy and domestic affairs were regarded as motives.”

Back at Lipjan prison in Kosovo, women prisoners were filing in and out of their cells ahead of exercise hour.

“When a man kills someone, it’s manhood,” said one inmate. “When a woman does the same, it’s called tragedy.”

Shqipe Gjocaj is a freelance journalist in Kosovo who specialises in human rights issues. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

NOTE: This article has been amended on November 11 to clarify the legal situation regarding inheritance rights in paragraph 34.