Human Rights in Albania


Introduction
Human rights continue to be breached in Albania. There is a large gap between human rights protection that citizens should have in theory and how individuals or groups experience protection of their rights in reality. The treatment of vulnerable groups is highly problematic in Albania.  Discriminatory attitudes and practices prevail against the Roma/Egyptians and LGBT communities. Independent institutions, such as the Office of Ombudsman, despite active engagement have had only limited impact when it comes to improving human rights. In 2014 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Albania had violated human rights in four instances:

  • one ruling on the right to a fair trial,
  • one ruling on the length of proceedings and
  • two further rulings on the non-enforcement of rights.

While there was a peaceful transfer of power following national elections in 2013, politics continues to be severely polarised hampering parliamentary proceedings and reforms. Many aspects of the state do not function effectively. The country’s poor economic situation is a massive stumbling block to sustained development. Territorial and administrative reforms, the merging of rural and urban areas into 61 new municipalities, have not led to any significant improvements.

Widespread corruption and impunity is a contributory factor to the country’s poor human rights record. Various studies have shown that the general public viewed most public institutions, especially the justice sector, as corrupt or extremely corrupt. Reform of the judiciary will be essential to ensuring human rights and freedoms are upheld.

The EU has identified protection of human rights as one of the five priority areas for Albania when it was granted candidate status in 2014. The 2014 EU Progress Report on Albania stated that “the legislative framework on fundamental rights and its enforcement will have to be improved and measures should be implemented to enhance Roma inclusion and protect vulnerable groups.”

The situation for Human Rights Defenders in Albania
Human rights defenders struggle to be heard. Often politicians and the media discredit their opinions and recommendations. The media is not considered free and independent. Women human rights defenders often face strong societal and cultural barriers when carrying out their work.

Ten Rights in Focus

The right to life and physical integrity

The right to life and protection against torture is guaranteed in the Constitution. Albania is a signatory to international human rights treaties and conventions. There is an ongoing problem of mistreatment by police officers and they often behave with impunity. Controversy still surrounds the low sentences of two senior police officers convicted for the unlawful killing of four citizens at an anti-government demonstration in 2011.

Domestic violence against women is a serious problem. Statistics show that nearly 60% of women in rural areas suffer physical or psychological violence and nearly 8% are victims of sexual violence. Protection orders are often violated. In 2014 the Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC) reported that the number of female murder victims is still high. In 2015 UNICEF reported that 77% of Albanian children have been subjected to some form of violent punishment at home. Hundreds of children are being forced to beg or subjected to other forms of forced labour within the country and even abroad. The blood feud phenomonen in Albania continues to claim lives. According to the Ombudsman, at least 70 families are in a self-imposed confinement due to fear of revenge attacks.

The right to liberty and security of person

While steps have been undertaken to improve conditions and treatment in prisons and pre-detention centres overcrowding persists. In 2014 prisons were overcrowded by 32%, mostly pre-trial detention centres. In 2015, the Ombudsman reported that 77% of prisons and detention centres were overcrowded. Basic facilities are inadequate and many prisoners are forced to sleep on the floor with unsanitary bedding. Underfunding has led to inadequate access to health care and medicines. Political pressure to use custodial sentences even for minor offences with delayed court proceeding exacerbates the problem.

Other issues include the unlawful detention in prisons of persons found to be mentally ill and psychiatric patients. Albanian Helsinki Committee reports that over 150 citizens who should be treated for mental health issues have been sent to prison in contradiction to the court decision and in violation of the law.

The AHC has also reported cases when prosecutors request different custodial sentences, in contravention to the law and they have filed two lawsuits against the Tirana Prosecutors’ office on this issue. Fewer cases of violence by police and prison authorities have been reported  but the high number of suicides in prison is still concerning. The use of solitary confinement is still in use.

The situation for the LGBT community is precarious with reports of LGBT people been held against their will by family members, simply because of their sexuality. A residential shelter has been set up in Tirana for young LGBTI people who are victims of or at risk of domestic violence, physical or psychological. LGBT organisations are also working with the police to train officers on issues affecting the LGBT community.

The right to respect for private life and family life

The right to private life and family life is generally respected. Problems persist however for Roma/Egyptian and LGBT people and families on low income. The lack of protection from forced evictions of the Roma/Egyptian communities has greatly affected the right to family life for these two marginalised communities. Statistics demonstrate a disproportionately high number of Roma/Egyptian children who are living apart from their families as a result of being housed in residential institutions. The lack of a targeted social protection system has left many Roma/Egyptian families at high risk as these groups often lack access to legal documentation and knowledge of how to claim their rights.

A draft law on same-sex partnership prepared by the Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth is currently stalled at the Ministry of Justice and so it is not yet clear when the law will  be sent to the Parliament for consideration. In a separate finding the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination has raised concerns regarding the family registration law that discriminates against women. As a result heads of households, who are overwhelmingly men have the right to change family residency without their partners’ permission.

The right to a fair trial and to effective remedy

The Albanian justice system is systematically corrupt with high levels of impunity. A Special Parliamentary Commission for Justice Reform stated in their report of June 2015 that corruption is widespread at all levels. There are cases of judges and prosecutors demanding bribes in exchange for favourable judgements and the police tampering or destroying evidence. There is an unwillingness to bring charges of corruption against judges and prosecutors.

Some positive steps to tackle corruption have been made including the arrest of several public officials on charges of corruption. Impunity is a problem and court proceedings against 21 mayors charged with abuse of power ended up with many receiving minimal sentences or acquittals. An online platform where citizens can report incidents of corruption has not yielded substantial results. The declaration of assets of persons with governmental positions has also shown that many are extremely wealthy but the acquisition of the such wealth is rarely accounted for. .

Many citizens have difficulty accessing the justice system. Non-enforcement of court decisions is a problem as are delays in court proceedings. The newly administrative court established in 2013 to address the high number of cases is already backlogged.

Free legal aid in civil cases is denied to many, especially those from marginalised groups such as the Roma and Egyprian communities. The Free Legal Aid law was passed in 2008 establishing the State Legal Aid Commission. It was amended in 2013 to create free legal aid clinics across the country. The law has not proven effective in practice and the Legal Aid Commission is inefficient and lacks transparency. Most free legal aid continues to be provided by civil society organisations with donor funding. Problems have also been reported with pro bono lawyers in penal cases. The lawyers assigned by the courts and the Prosecutor’s Office often fail to defend citizens properly; they are poorly paid and suffer from a low level of professionalism.

A Constitutional Court judgement allows individual judges to exempt individuals on low-incomes from court fees. However uniform and clear procedures have not been developed. The Government’s decision to lower some court fees in 2013 was a welcome step but compensation and notaries’ fees remain high  affecting individuals on low income.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution and is generally respected. Albania is a secular state and religion does not play a central role in public life. There is minimal sectarianism in the country and the Inter-Religious Council of Albania issues joint statements.

Muslims in the Balkans traditionally practice a moderate form of Islam but a number of factors such as the influx of a conservative branch of Sunni Islam and recent economic problems have led  to hundreds of ethnic Albanians joining radical groups in Iraq and Syria. In 2014, 14 Albanians, including two Imams, were charged with recruiting men to fight with radical Islamists. According to Terrorism Monitor, over 150 Albanian citizens have joined terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria.

Albania is one of the few former communist countries where secret police files remain unavailable to the public. According to the Institute for Studying of Communist Crimes and Consequences in Albania the totalitarian regime executed 7,000 political opponents, imprisoned 34,000 and sent 59,000 to forced labour or internment camps. There have been different approaches by the Government and the Opposition to address these issues leading to two draft laws being introduced in Parliament,“The Right to Information on files of the former Security of the State of the Former People Socialist Republic of Albania,” The Government’s Law hich was passed in April 2015 gives victims of the former Communist regime access to previously classified files of the secret police.

The right to the freedom of expression

Although freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Constitution, a strong, independent media has not developed in the country. Media ownership is not transparent and most media outlets, including broadcasters, are openly biased to political parties. The current government is not seen to engage in oppressive methods but they try to control public opinion with heavy propagandistic communication especially on social media. During the 2015 local election campaign TV stations were accused of giving unequal coverage to the political parties. There is a disturbing trend of political parties preventing media outlets covering election events and supplying the media with ‘ready-made’ news reports after, blurring the distinction between news and political broadcasts.

Journalists have little employment security. Many journalists work without an employment contract and are often not paid for several months. Journalists admit to censor themselves due to their precarious employment status. During the 2015 local elections a mayoral candidate was caught on video threatening to get a journalist fired if they asked difficult questions during an interview. Balkan Investigative Regional Network, an independent and investigative media outlet, has been threatened with for a defamation case, following their investigations into the criminal past of a mayoral candidate, supported the Prime Minister in TV interview.

An important achievement in 2014 was the approval of a new freedom of information law. Information requests must be meet in 10 days.  Every state body must prepare a programme of transparency; publish an information requests register and sanctions for public officials who breach the law. A Commissioner oversees the respect of the law.

The right to freedom of assembly and association

Freedom of assembly is generally respected but with occasional flaws. Since violent anti-government demonstrations in 2011, public demonstrations have been peaceful. Apart from public demonstrations in 2013 that prompted the Government to reject a US request to host the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, most public demonstrations have had no impact on public policy.  It is of concern that public protests by the student movement “Per Universitetin” against reform to higher education have been hampered by the authorities. A student organiser was fined for illegal assembly. Seven students were held, without reasonable cause, at a police station after they organised a legal gathering in front of the Parliament.

Albanian trade unions are very weak and are heavily influenced by political parties. The Prime Minister has called on foreign investors to invest in Albania arguing, “there will be no effective trade unions to challenge them.”

The rights to protection against hate speech and war propaganda

There have been some incidents of hate speech against LGBT and Roma/Egyptian people by politicians. Hate speech is mostly found on online media which is not regulated. Islamophobia is also widespread, especially directed towards persons allegedly engaged with terrorist groups.

Hate crimes have only recently been added to the Criminal Code. Apart from the Ombudsman and some human rights defenders, few measures have been made to address this issue.

The right to political rights

The Constitution guarantees universal suffrage to all citizens over the age of 18, including prisoners. After a history of flawed elections the 2013 national elections are now considered to be in accordance with international standards. The initial report of the OSCE/ODIHR election-monitoring team opined that the 2015 local elections were largely positive though there were areas of concerns such as vote buying and the lack of proper information regarding voting centres.

People with criminal histories have stood in elections and have been elected. A law to decriminalise politics will be introduced in September 2015.

Individuals from vulnerable groups have problems exercising their right to vote. In 2015 the AHC found irregularities regarding the preparation of voter lists regarding Roma, ethnic minority communities and first time voters. People with disabilities also face difficulties exercising their right to vote. Even though the Central Election Commission had publicly stated that they have addressed many issues early reports from the 2015 local elections found many voting centres were inaccessible and there was lack of ballot papers written in braille.

The right to protection against discrimination

The Albanian paradox is that while there is good legislation to protect citizens against discrimination, in reality there is poor enforcement of the law. Roma/Egyptian communities, LGBT and people with disabilities experience prejudice and discriminatory behaviour from public institutions and the general public. In 2014 the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination reported an increase in the number of cases.

The Law on Inclusion and Accessibility for Disabled Persons was passed in 2014. Many people with disabilities face constant daily physical and discriminatory barriers. Reasonable accommodation and access to public and private spaces has seen very little progress. Access to public transportation and lack is also problematic.

Roma/Egyptians are the most deprived community in Albania and are constantly exposed to discrimination and hate speech. Many Roma/Egyptians live in extreme poverty and face exclusion from education, healthcare and employment. Poor housing is an ongoing issue facing Roma/Egyptians. Around 20 families in Elbasan and around 60 families in Tirana have been unable to legalise their homes and face the threat of eviction without compensation from their homes. The Law on Legalisation of Illegal Buildings, amended in 2014, has adversely affected these people, as they put families living in shacks at risk of eviction without proper compensation or alternative housing. Albanian legislation does not protect citizens from forced evictions.

Economic aid is currently being reformed by the Ministry of Social Welfare and Youth. It has brought problems to families on low income. Changes in th5e system have excluded many families from receiving the benefits. This reform has impacted once again  Roma/Egyptian families who are engaged in informal economic activities but rely on benefits from the state as a form of a safety net.

Albania remains a deeply conservative country. Homophobia and transphobia are widespread. There are very few openly gay people in public life. There is low awareness of LGBT rights within the LGBT community itself and the general public. Bullying is prevalent in schools and many LGBT people face social isolation especially if they live outside of Tirana. The LGBT community has been included in the Government’s 2015-2020 Social Inclusion Policies and a specific Action Plan on advancing LGBT rights is being prepared.

The role of Civil Rights Defenders in Albania
Civil Rights Defenders began supporting ad hoc activities in Albania in 1999. Civil Rights Defenders has supported lobbying activities that have led to laws on free legal aid and protection against discrimination. Civil Rights Defenders opened a field office in Tirana in 2012 in order to work more closely with partner organisations. Civil Rights Defenders is currently supporting nine partner organisations which are involved in providing free legal aid, supporting disability rights, working with and training journalists, strengthening the LGBT community, working on mental health issues and supporting lobbying and advocacy activities of Roma community groups. Some of the activities Civil Rights Defenders has supported are a Roma housing campaign against forced evictions, monitoring elections, monitoring prisons and establishing a human rights news portal.  Despite widespread homophobia, issues of LGBT people are now visible in the media. On the 17th May 2014 activists participated in the Third Bike Ride against Homophobia along Tirana’s main boulevard without incident.

An informal network of human rights defenders was set up with the aim of increasing collaboration between organisations specialised in free legal aid and strategic litigation with grass roots and advocacy organisations. This advocacy group has been focusing mostly on the right to housing and protection from eviction in three cases, two of them in Elbasan and one in Tirana.

Categories: Country Reports.
Tags: Human rights.
Regions: Albania and Western Balkans.