Wednesday, January 6, 2016

US Diplomat Urges Albania to End Judicial Corruption

The US ambassador to Tirana told BIRN that a proposed overhaul of Albania’s corruption-riddled justice system was the most important reform since the fall of Communism.

Fatjona Mejdini

US ambassador to Tirana, Donald Lu speaking about judicial reform | Photo: LSA/Malton Dibra

The US ambassador to Tirana, Donald Lu, told BIRN in an interview that the proposed reform of the Albanian judicial system is crucial for the country’s hopes of EU membership.

Lu described it as "the most important reform in the 25 years since the fall of communism".

"It has the possibility of ridding the Albanian judicial system of corrupt judges and prosecutors who steal the money of ordinary citizens and allow organized crime figures, murderers and corrupt politicians to buy justice," he said.

The call for the reform has not been led by Albanian political party leaders, but by diplomats in Tirana like Lu.

Many Albanians have seen Lu’s commitment to the reform as a guarantee that it will be implemented; some have even described him as the potential saviour of Albania at a time when corruption is rampant and impunity has been institutionalized.

But he explained that the reason for his involvement in pushing for the reform was simple: "We are just doing our jobs," he said.

"All of us in the US Embassy are focused on judicial reform because of the direct instruction of senior officials in the White House and the State Department. They have told us clearly that the number one priority of the US Government in Albania is to support the reforms necessary for Albania's EU accession," he explained.

Lu said that Albania has the lowest rate of serious crime prosecution in Europe and that this must be increased in order to hold politicians accountable and improve the economy.

He said he believes that judicial reform will fix this problem through the creation of a mechanism to vet and remove corrupt and incompetent judges and prosecutors.

It will also establish a better system to discipline judges and prosecutors for any wrongdoing and reorganize the prosecutorial system to improve its effectiveness, particularly in cases of high-level corruption.

Lu warned that the planned reform also has many enemies, and called on the country’s political parties to stand together and back it.

"Now is the time for Albania's political leaders to show courage in the face of those seeking to undermine or dilute this reform," he said.

The constitutional changes required for the judicial reform need the support of 93 of the 140 Albanian MPs in parliament - a majority that can be achieved if the country’s main parties unite to vote in favour.

Cross-party support is also important during the implementation phase if the reform is to be successful.

But although foreign diplomats have been the most vocal supporters of the reform, Lu said he doesn't think that he and his colleagues are alone in the struggle.

"In the past weeks, I have been impressed by the unity of the leaders of the Socialist Party, the Democratic Party and the Movement for Socialist Integration in favour of a reform that endorses a full implementation of the Venice Commission recommendations," he said.

The Venice Commission has asked the parliamentary commission that drafted the reform to review some of the proposed constitutional changes. The commission met on January 4 to discuss the recommendations before the process moves forward again.

Lu said that he is convinced that the reform has the potential to end the impunity of senior officials and tackle political corruption, but he warned the Albanian people that they "must not expect a miracle overnight".

"Vetting and removing prosecutors and judges could take three years or more. Recruiting and training the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct anti-corruption investigations will require more than a year. Establishing judicial appointments councils and disciplinary bodies will take several months," he explained.

The goal of the reform is a judicial system free from corruption and incompetence, he said.

"It will be a system that will hold judges and prosecutors accountable. It will also hold senior government officials, parliamentarians and local officials accountable as well," he argued.

The US, Lu insisted, will "not rest" until the process is complete.

"We will continue to speak out publicly and privately in favour of this reform. We encourage all Albanians to join in the public debate about the substance and ideas of this reform," he said.
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