Since 1991, the restitution of properties confiscated by the former communist regime has remained a problematic topic for successive Albanian governments. As the government failed to pass proper legislation to legalize properties confiscated during communism and the courts, under the corruptive influence of oligarchs and wealthy entrepreneurs, often failed to adjudicate property conflicts in an equitable manner, many of such cases have ended up at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
Last year, we reported that there about 82 dossiers concerning property issues under review of the ECtHR, with pending claims amounting hundreds of millions of Euros. Meanwhile, the Rama government has continued expropriations for its own “urban regeneration” efforts, both in Tirana and in other parts of the country, which are leading to an increasing number of lawsuits against the government.
Realizing that both the “inherited” property cases, as well as the new cases generated by its own policies, could potentially cause massive damage to the Albanian budget, the Rama government sent a delegation to the ECtHR in June 2014. The official delegation consisted of then Deputy Prime Minister and current Minister of Agriculture Niko Peleshi, State Attorney Alma Hiçka, former Deputy Minister of Justice Idlir Peçi, and then director of the Agency for the Return and Compensation of Properties (AKKP) and current Minister of State for the Protection of Businesses Sonila Qato. They were accompanied unofficially by Deputy Chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC) Denar Biba.
The delegation’s official purpose was to convince the then President of the ECtHR Dean Spielmann to put a stop to the processing of property compensation cases, under the pretext that the Albanian government was drafting a new law that would satisfy all claimants once and for all. On May 9, 2016, Prime Minister Rama announced in Parliament that his government had concluded an agreement with the ECtHR which would suspend judgments on all property cases against Albania.
Needless to say, Rama property compensation law never materialized. Instead, the Rama government passed the Strategic Investments Law in 2015, which allows the government to expropriate private owners to the benefit of entrepreneurs who make “strategic investments.” Furthermore, on February 2, 2018, the Rama government passed a Decision of the Council of Ministers unilaterally suspending all legalization processes of private properties along the Albanian coast so that the properties, many of which were confiscated during the communist period, would instead enter a “reserve for strategic investments.”
On the sidelines of this official meeting in June 2014, however, Denar Biba held a meeting with Albanian ECtHR judge Ledi Bianku. Exit has acquired a partial recording of the meeting in which Biba claims to be sent to meet Bianku by Engjëll Agaçi, General Secretary of the Council of Ministers, in order to pressure him to put an hold on the property cases.
Biba: Engjëll Agaçi, General Secretary of the Council of Ministers calls me and says how are you with Ledi Bianku? […] We have these problems, this whole story with blocking, the delay [of cases concerning property compensation]. […] He said, hey, please beg him [Bianku] to find us [a solution] in this issue.
Today Niko Peleshi is there [in ECtHR offices]. He has a meeting [with Spielmann].
They [the government] just paid my ticket and I am doing some kind of duty… Will this train stop at your station [again]? Because, you’ll bee without work [after the ECtHR term ends] and what were all these sacrifices [you have made] worth for? A man makes compromises in his life.
Bianku confirmed to Exit that this meeting indeed occurred and that he reported it to Spielmann as undue influence of the Albanian government on a judge of the ECtHR.
This recording shows an unelected and supposedly impartial state official, the Deputy Chairman of the CEC, being sent to Strasbourg by the right hand man of Prime Minister Edi Rama, with the aim of pressuring a judge of the ECtHR to “do something” about the property compensation cases he is treating, under the threat that he would remain “without work” after his term was finished.
If the Rama government is attempting to blackmail a judge at the highest court in Europe in such a shameless manner, we can only imagine the ways in which he pressures the national courts, including the Constitutional Court, let alone the pressure put on the members of the vetting organs to “pass” or “fail” certain judges and prosecutors. The effort to bribe a ECtHR judge into obedience shows that the government of Edi Rama will not stop at anything to corrupt the judiciary system, in Albania and in Europe.
In fact, Rama’s government continued to pressure the ECtHR after the above attempt, and several government members continued to visit Strasbourg. In may 2016, a delegation of several ministers and high ranking officials headed by the Minister of Finance Arben Ahmetaj visited Strasbourg to meet with the new Head of ECtHR, Mr. Guido Raimondi. After this visit, on 12 may 2016, Prime Minister Rama himself triumphantly announced from the floor of the Albanian parliament: “we have reached an agreement with the Strasbourg Court that there will not be no more property decisions against Albania. The issue of properties [restitution] is solved.”
It is not clear what was the basis for such statement, but it clearly runs counter to any concept of justice and rule of law and violates the rights of Albanian citizens to due process.
The pressure put on ECtHR judge Bianku by the Albanian government also casts a light on the continuous failure of the Albanian government to find a replacement for Bianku, whose term as ECtHR has officially already ended. The vacancy already exists for more than a year, and already three times a candidate list proposed by the Albanian government has been rejected. The most recent submission deadline was August 31, 2017, but the government only recently announced a new candidate list, which has been sent to Strasbourg late in July. It’s worth noting that none of the candidates has been vetted, while the justice reform introduced in Albania has made the vetting of all judges a constitutional obligation.
We can now understand why this procedure is taking so long. The Rama government is hell-bent on getting a new Albanian judge elected that will do exactly as asked: drop the property compensation cases. It is up to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to prevent that from happening.