From: Nashi Brooker
Comment: How Albanian Communists Facing Justice in Germany Gives Hope to Survivors

Albania has in the past made some efforts to bring perpetrators of crimes committed by the Communist dictatorship to justice. On the 1st February 1996, five years after the fall of that regime, authorities arrested former president Ramiz Alia and charged him with the internment and imprisonment of thousands of citizens in concentration camps. 

The U.S. Department of State Country Report on Albanian Human Rights Practices 1997 reported the full list of charges against him: 

“After Alia entered pretrial detention, the prosecutor added other charges: ordering the killing of people who attempted to leave the country; ordering troops and police to fire on the people who toppled the Hoxha monument in Tirana; ordering the arming of military students who subsequently killed some civilians; and ordering the shootings on April 2, 1991, in Shkodra that left four dead. The investigation was still ongoing at the start of the year. Alia, however, went free along with all the other prisoners in March when all the prisons were abandoned. He was subsequently rumored to have fled to France and to be living there with his son. After apparently living in various European cities with relatives, Alia returned to Albania on December 21.”

However, the report goes on to state that prior to this: “On October 20 a Tirana court dismissed charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against Alia. Similar charges against two former Interior Ministers, Simon Stefani, and Hekuran Isai, and against former General Prosecutor Qemal Lame, also were dropped.”

Since that time, victims of the regime have had no opportunity to see their cases dealt with in the Albanian courts. Similarly, those under suspicion or deemed responsible for atrocities live under the shadow of denunciations but have had no opportunity to prove their innocence or otherwise. That great cruelty was inflicted on many individuals is not disputed; responsibility for that cruelty has never been settled in courts of law.

However, this may be about to change. A former high-ranking commander, Edmond Caja of Qafë Bari Prison, a communist-run prison and labor camp for political prisoners in the north of Albania, has now been charged with crimes against humanity by German courts and he will, during his trial, face survivors. The defendant, now in his early 60’s, is accused of overseeing and participating in the torture of more than 400 prisoners, with at least one death occurring at the hands of the police under his command. It is stated that there were daily and systematic beatings inflicted on political prisoners in the open grounds of the camp. In solitary cells, inmates were chained for hours each day. It is also claimed that Edmond Caja and his police team would kick prisoners and beat them with truncheons and chains.

Qafë Bari prison (in Albanian, Burgu I Qafë Barit) was built in 1982 with the intention of enslaving political prisoners by forcing them to work in copper mines. Each prisoner was expected to work sixteen hours each day and to dig out set targets of copper. The punishment was arbitrary and brutal, with inmates regularly beaten when, for whatever reason, they were unable to dig out their set allocation of copper ore. 

On 20th May 1984, whilst Caja ran the prison, prisoners rebelled against conditions. This was, according to reports, put down brutally on 22 May, with at least two prisoners who were accused of being organizers, being shot. Two bodies were found in 2011 at Kuç, near the river Kir, by families looking for victims of the revolt. It was reported that the bodies belonged to Tom Kol Ndoja and Sokol Zef Sokoli, both of whom had disappeared during their time of imprisonment. 

In 1993, after the fall of the communist regime, Caja sought asylum in Germany and lived openly under his own name among other Albanian emigrants. His achievements in Germany, as an apparently successful businessman, were celebrated in the Albanian media. However, the relative of one of the former prisoners at Qafë Bari, Ermira Dine, who also lives in Germany, noticed his name in one of these reports and reacted with horror. 

As a result, she posted online what she knew of his time as commander of Qafë Bari prison. Caja sued her but later withdrew his claim. Caja has regularly used the threat of court action to mute accusations but appears to have never taken a case to a conclusion. 

In June 2019 Agron Tufa, a writer, poet, publicist and scholar into the crimes of the communist regime, made an allegation against Edmond Caja to the Prosecution Office of Serious Crimes in Tirana on behalf of the Institute of Research of the Communist Crimes. After so many public denouncements of crimes committed in the Albanian Gulags from surviving victims and other institutions created to expose them, this attracted the attention of Dr. Jorge Luer, a German lawyer working on behalf of The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (Justitia et Pax). 

In June 2019 he was briefed by Agron Tufa, then of the Albanian Institute for the Studies of Communist Crimes and its Consequences (ISKK), along with Agron Shehaj, the entrepreneur, political activist, and philanthropist, who had also taken an interest in the case. As a result of this, Dr. Luer stated (translated from an original article in Albanian):

“These horrors committed during the dictatorship must be heard in the courts of the justice system, it is part of the political transition of Albania, and the truth has to come out.”

It was as a result of his intervention by Justitia et Pax that the German criminal justice system decided to take up the case.

The gathering of evidence

Thus far, eighteen witnesses have publicly made statements relating their experiences while at Qafë Bari prison. One of the witnesses is the acclaimed poet Visar Zhiti, who witnessed the beating of his fellow prisoners. Zhiti describes the death of Sander Sokoli on 22 May 1984 this way:

“It is rumoured that the police hit him so hard that he lay facing the ground. Then another police officer, a giant 6ft 6inches tall, jumped in his back with both feet. Then two other officers joined him, one lifted his leg, the other lifted his head and broke his spine. Sander Sokoli at that moment was heard to give only a quiet sigh and then he was dead. Afterwards, his corpse still handcuffed, was thrown into a police car with two other inmates”. He continues by observing that the methods used by the Communist system were so cruel that it must seem unimaginable to a person today.

Another chilling account came from Ahmet Tufa, another survivor of the prison, now settled in Holland. He stated that the torture and physical abuse that he suffered and witnessed is almost beyond describing in words. Despite this, his evidence was amongst that submitted by video by eleven survivors in a file alleging Crimes Against Humanity.  

Agron Tufa, who compiled the evidence along with Agron Shehaj and Dr Jorge Luer of Justitie et Pax, left Albania at the end of 2019 and sought asylum in Switzerland. Tufa had, as a result of his investigations on behalf of ISKK, found evidence against various people who have worked for the Sigurimi, the police, the Investigators’ Office, and the Albanian prosecution service.

 It was in response to threats made against his life and that of his family that he felt forced to leave Albania and seek asylum elsewhere. He is currently awaiting the result of his asylum application. 

Tufa states that Dr Jorge Luer “contacted me a few times whilst I was in the refugee camp, for me to attend the hearing in Munich which was due to take place on 15 March 2020, but this did not take place because of the COVID-19.” It is expected that another hearing will be arranged. 

The German justice system continues to cooperate with the Albanian police to gather more oral evidence from former inmates in Qafë Bari prison. Gjergj Hani, another of the surviving inmates, told the media he was invited by officers who work for the Anti-terror Team in Tirana to make a statement against Edmond Caja at the beginning of July 2020 due to their cooperation with the German Justice System. 

Why Germany?

Despite the offences under investigation being committed in Albania, this case establishes an important precedent, confirming that cases can be heard in the country of residence, rather than only the country where crimes may have taken place. This follows prosecutors having managed to launch a criminal case in Germany’s federal court against the Syrian regime of Assad despite that regime having repeatedly denied torture and war crimes charges. 

In the Caja case, they are using the same principle of universal jurisdiction, which means a country can prosecute alleged crimes against humanity committed elsewhere. Thus, people from countries such as Albania, where serious crimes were committed under a previous regime, and which to this day has failed to prosecute the people thought to have been responsible for them, can now be prosecuted regardless of where they settle in the EU. 

Steve Kostas, who is a Senior Legal Officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative’s litigation team in London states, in connection with another case being held in Germany, that of Anwar Raslan, said to have been formerly head of investigations at a branch of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate and being charged with crimes against humanity, 58 murders, rape, and sexual assault: 

“That’s a really significant milestone for the rule of law in the conflict in Syria,”. He went on to state that the factual evidence that has been collected in one country, Syria, can be used in a court of law elsewhere, Germany is “an extremely significant accomplishment”. 

Having successfully brought the accusations against Edmond Caja to trial, this action by the German justice system is likely to spur other European jurisdictions to press for accountability against its citizens whenever there is thought to be evidence that they have committed crimes against humanity elsewhere. 

It will be interesting to see what happens with other leading members of the former Communist regime who live in Germany or other parts of Europe. There are other prominent members of the former Hoxha dictatorship who live in the EU; some of them very active online. This includes at least one who was originally charged in Albania following the fall of the Communist regime but whose case was, amongst those of others at ministerial and senior prosecutorial level, controversially dropped in 1996.

 Likely that other prosecutions will follow 

That crimes were committed in Albania but that the perpetrators were not brought to account for them is a fact. The victims continue to share their stories in the hope that justice will eventually be theirs. For example, another chilling account comes from Fadi Daja who, having completed his two-year army service in 1973, aged only 20, crossed the border successfully to Yugoslavia accompanied by two other friends. Unfortunately, they were forced by the authorities to return to Albania where they were immediately arrested and sent to Prison 313, otherwise known as Jordan Misja Prison (Albanian: Burgu 313) in Tirana. Once there, they spent two years in the cells. Fadil states that the senior official in the Investigators Office gave orders to a police officer – who now, in a strange twist of fate, is his neighbour, and has confirmed this – to torture and treat them as inhumanly as possible

He says that for forty-five days his hands and feet were chained. Fadil was eventually given a death sentence, but following the intervention of a Communist Party Commissar, the death sentence was commuted to twenty-five years in prison. He served the rest of this sentence at Spaç Prison, another gulag and labour camp. 

One must hope that Germany’s willingness to prosecute such crimes will put pressure on the justice system in Albania to actively pursue investigations, gather evidence, and start prosecuting those people accused of similar offences during the dictatorship.