The family of an Albanian prisoner who has requested he be imprisoned near them so they can visit, says they have had their requests ignored.
Under Albanian law, prisoners are to be assigned to institutions near their families. This is clearly defined in Article 39 of the law on the Rights and Treatment of Prisoners and Pre-Prisoners.
Roland Sota Xhepexhiu is currently interred at Fushe Kruje prison. Just over a year ago, he was transferred from Peqin to the current facility. This means that his elderly mother is unable to visit him due to logistics and her health issues.
His family told Exit they contacted the Minister of Justice Etlida Gjonaj on at least two occasions times, the American Ambassador Yuri Kim, and several members of parliament including Taulant Balla, requesting that he be moved nearer, and in line with Albanian law.
The director of the prison was also contacted by the family and Xhepexhiu has also made many requests. Sadly, he remains in Fush Kruje prison and has had no indication that he will be transferred.
Despite this, on 20 January, Gjonaj tweeted that one of the “fundamental priorities” of her ministry was improving the treatment of prisoners
Europen Court of Human Rights guidance on the matter is clear. Prisoners have a right to respect for their private and family life, including the correspondence. The authorities cannot interfere with the exercise with the right, such as is required in a democratic society and these rights do not stop at the prison gate.
“There is no question, therefore, that a prisoner forfeits his Convention rights merely because of his status as a person detained following conviction”
In 2014, in Vintman v Ukraine, it was ruled that the Convention does not grant prisoners the right to choose their place of detention, and the fact that prisoners are separated from their families, and at some distance from them, is an inevitable consequence of their imprisonment. Nevertheless, detaining an individual in a prison that is so far away from his or her family that visits are made very difficult or even impossible may in some circumstances amount to interference with family life, as the opportunity for family members to visit the prisoner is vital to maintaining family life. It is therefore an essential part of prisoners’ right to respect for family life that the prison authorities assist them in maintaining contact with their close family.
Khodorkovsky v Lebedev also found that locating a prisoner far from their family was an interference in their Article 8 rights. This applies not only to big distances but in cases where a family member is elderly or sick and is unable to undertake longer journeys.
As per ECHR case law, domestic authorities must provide the prisoner with a realistic opportunity for their situation to be addressed. While inter-state prison transfers are not guaranteed in every case, the authorities must seek to protect the prisoner’s right to family life.
Roland Sota Xhepexhiu was convicted as an alleged member of the so-called “Cerrik Gang”. On 23 May 1997 during a period of intense civil conflict, gangs attacked a Special Forces armored vehicle in Cerrik, Elbasan. Six Guards of the Republic were killed in grenade attacks and three others were held hostage. Many others were injured.
10 years later Xhepaxhiu was arrested and accused of collaborating with others. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Xhepaxhiu and his family maintain his innocence and the case will be assessed again by the High Court.
Exit contacted the Ministry of Justice who said that Xhepaxhiu cannot be transferred to Lushnje prison (near his mother) as it is not secure enough for his grade. He cannot be transferred back to Peqin as this has been upgraded to maximum security and is above Xhepaxhiu’s grade. They said they would ask if there was any room for facilitating his requests.
They also noted that there were currently no visitors allowed anyway due to COVID, this was disputed by the prisoner who claimed to have seen visitors coming to the prison.
The WHO has issued guidance on visitors to prisoners during the pandemic. It states that decisions to limit visits should be weighed against the mental health implications for the prisoner. “Banning of visitors to protect the setting from COVID-19 may result in violence, so other measures that facilitate non-contact visits, such as the introduction of video conferencing (e.g. Skype), should be considered,” it states. This hasn’t happened in Albania.
In countries such as the UK and US, prison visits have largely continued, albeit with additional precautions and measures in place.
This raises questions and concerns regarding the human rights and wellbeing of prisoners in Albania’s facilities over the last 12 months.