Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has won a legal challenge that means reports and statistics from the Communist-era secret service will be declassified.
The files that were compiled by the infamous Sigurimi (Directorate of State Security) were being kept secret by the present-day Albanian intelligence agency, but not for much longer. Following a ruling by the Administrative Court of Appeals in Tirana, the information that has previously been kept away from the eyes of the public and those who it concerns, will be made available.
The legal challenge was mounted by the BIRN over three years ago. They asked for access to the yearly reports by the Sigurimi covering the period between 1980 and 1989 as well as information relating to how many Albanians were under active surveillance during that time frame. The request was refused by the SHISH (the State Information Service) and they claimed that they did not have the authority to do so.
This claim was rebuked by the country’s Freedom of Information Commissioner, based on the 2014 freedom of information law. The SHISH refused and insisted that the information should remain as a state secret. BIRN then challenged the decision in court and won in November 2016. SHISH appealed the decision stating that the files should remain as “secrets in perpetuity” and stating that they had the exclusive right to decide whether the documents should be declassified or not.
The original decision in support of BIRN was upheld yesterday and the ruling cannot be appealed again.
The ruling sets an interesting precedent as a number of other Albanian state institutions also hold classified information that was collected during the Communist regime. At the moment, parliament has access to certain Sigurimi files but only provides the information within to people who were prosecuted under Communism.
Human rights lawyer Theodoros Alexandritis commented:
“The reluctance of the secret service to disclose any info and hold it under wraps forever shows that a culture of secrecy is still prevalent in that institution and that successive governments have not done anything to counter it.”
He added that “the decision is clearly a brave step by the Albanian courts to bring their approach on this sensitive issue in line with international law standards and the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisprudence.”
The Sigurimi functioned as the secret police, intelligence, and state security between 1944 and 1991, during the time of Communism. It was supposedly in place to protect Albania from danger, but it served to hold the regime in place through suppressing political activity and surveilling citizens.
In 2008, the Albanian parliament discussed opening many of the files, but the Socialist Party contested it. Some members of the party including Gramoz Ruci, and recently appointed President of the Albanian Academy of Sciences Skender Gjinushi were both Ministers during the time of Communism.