The Albanian authorities have a legal obligation to account for persons missing from the communist era, according to Matthew Holiday, the Head of the International Commission on Missing Persons Western Balkans Program.
“State responsibility and state action are essential. ICMP’s work around the world demonstrates that missing persons can be accurately identified in line with the rule of law, even decades after the disappearances,” he added during a conference to launch the ‘Albania, Missing Persons from the Communist Era- A Needs Assessment’ report.
This obligation is not being met as requests for the excavation of suspected mass graves have not started, three years after they were first made with no reason or excuse being provided.
The report was created to assess Albania’s progress in addressing the issue of those who have gone missing and were persecuted during the communist regime. A number of recommendations were made based on research and analysis of legislation, institutions, and progress over the last 30 years. It was conducted by ICMP experts between 2018 and 2020 in Albania, with financial support from the European Union.
It’s estimated that at least 6000 people went missing between 1944 and 1991 in Albania. Some 5501 people who were convicted for political reasons were executed and almost 1000 others died in prison and forced labor camps. Their bodies were never returned to their families and the whereabouts of their mortal remains are unknown.
The ICMP note that the state has a responsibility to ensure lasting peace, reconciliation, and social cohesion. Accounting for missing persons and attaining justice for their families is a big part of this. Furthermore, the state must lead effective inquiries to account for the missing and establish the circumstances of their disappearance.
This is covered by Article 2 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) to which Albania is a party. As well as protecting the right to life, Article 2 requires the state to carry out investigations.
Failure to account for the whereabouts and fate of the missing person gives rise to a continuing situation. In such cases, the procedural obligation persists as long as the person is unaccounted for or adequate measures have been taken to investigate the disappearance. Additionally, persons who go missing or are victims of enforced disappearance, even decades ago, are entitled to protection under the law, and their relatives and others close to a missing or disappeared person have a continuing right to an effective inquiry or investigation.
It notes that while some have been paid compensation, the scope of the law means that it’s only available to those in possession of documentation that verifies their family members’ status as politically persecuted persons. This leaves many persecuted families unable to access restitution from crimes committed against them.
Several shortcomings were noted in terms of excavating and investigating graves and burial sites. For example, the discovery of a mass grave on Dajti in 20210 led to the establishment of a Task Force for the REcovery and Identification of Human Remains of the communist Victims. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this task force ever requested an investigation or coordinated with any prosecutors. The Task force ceased operations four years later having achieved nothing.
Then in 2018, the ICMP and the IIPP submitted a request to excavate a site but three years later the excavation orders still haven’t been issued. The ICMP reports that the vetting process could have resulted in this delay. They also said that financial issues may have stooped prosecutors from issuing orders for financial reasons but this would not apply to EU-funded initiatives. The report says the reason for the failure of prosecutors to investigate properly remains unknown.
The lack of action from authorities has led to some family members trying to seek remains themselves. Excavations have been started without professional assistance and illegally, the report notes.
ICMP said that investigations must be adequate, prompt, transparent, and official.
The report made a number of recommendations to the government. This includes adopting legislation that protects the rights of families of missing persons and should uphold non-material rights such as memorialization of important dates and locations of importance. They must also ensure relevant institutions are properly funded and staffed to ensure activities relating to the investigation and identification of all missing persons can be undertaken.
In 2020, excavations started at Burrell prison to find the remains of victims of the regime, including Italian citizen Giussepe Terrusi.
The man, a banker was imprisoned by the regime in the prison at Burrel for seven years and died there in 1952. His son, Aldo Renato Terrusi has insisted that he be able to find his remains and send them home to Italy. He has been fighting the Albanian authorities for over 26 years.
According to media reports, the issue has had the attention of the Italian Embassy in Tirana and Prime Minister Edi Rama approved the excavations in October 2019.
After years of trying to find out what happened to his father, he managed to find original documents that provided information on his last whereabouts. He wrote that the Albanian authorities were unwilling to cooperate and gave many empty promises
“Despite my numerous requests and those of Italian institutions to the Albanian government for the exhumation and return of the remains of my father and other prisoners who died in Burrel prison, despite promises of intervention by the highest officials of the state and the Albanian Ministry of Justice, the remains of those men are still under the cold soil of that infamous country.”
He also spoke of his disbelief as to why the Albanian government did not want to help him. Terrusi said he felt the whole thing was nothing more than a “theatrical performance” and claimed and the official had even tried to extort money from him to “facilitate procedures.”
Agron Tufa, the former director of the Institute for the Study of Crimes and Consequences of Communism who was forced to seek asylum abroad because of attacks and threats against him by prominent communists, commented on the case. He said finding the remains of Terrusi, as well as all those who were killed by the regime is an obligation for the Albanian state.
Fred Abrahams, the Associate Director at Human Rights Watch and author of Modern Albania, tweeted the report, noting:
“Consider for a moment that roughly 6000 people remain missing from the communist era in Albania, despite all the pledges of justice from politicians red and blue.”
Albania does not have any memorial to the victims of communism, nor a national day of remembrance.