Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There was one report that the government or its agents committed an arbitrary or unlawful killing.
In May, a young Romani man died in detention in a police facility in Korca. His family alleged that he died due to police abuse, claiming they had photos of his body showing signs of violence. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent, constitutional entity that serves as a watchdog over the government, concluded there was not enough evidence to bring charges. The Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC), however, reported irregularities in documenting the incident and providing medical assistance to the detainee. The Albanian Rehabilitation Center from Trauma and Torture (ARCT) reported that the police officers allegedly involved in the detention were transferred to other positions.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
While the constitution and law prohibit such actions, there were reports that police and prison guards sometimes beat and abused suspects and prisoners, usually in police stations. Through September, the Service for Internal Affairs and Complaints (SIAC) received complaints of police abuse and corruption that led to administrative sanctions and criminal prosecutions. As of July, the AHC reported one case of alleged physical violence in a police facility. The Office of the Ombudsman reported that most cases of alleged physical or psychological abuse occurred during arrest and interrogation.
In May the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) released a report on its February 2017 visit to the country. The report noted that in Durres, the CPT received reports of recent physical mistreatment of several persons by police, notably of severe beatings combined with blows with a truncheon or baseball bat to the soles of the feet, which the report stated “could easily be considered to amount to torture.” In all cases, the alleged mistreatment took place during questioning by officers of the crime investigation unit at Durres Police Station, and including one particular senior officer. The CPT report noted that authorities had initiated criminal and disciplinary investigations into the allegations.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Poor physical conditions and a lack of medical treatment, particularly for mental health conditions, were serious problems, as were overcrowded facilities and corruption. The AHC and ARCT reported that conditions in certain detention facilities were so poor as to constitute inhumane treatment. Conditions remained substandard in police detention facilities outside of Tirana and other major urban centers.
Physical Conditions: ARCT reported the main problems prisons faced over the year were overcrowding, increases in deaths during detention, attempted suicides, and staff turnover. The government, the Office of the Ombudsman, the AHC, and ARCT reported that prison overcrowding continued. ARCT reported acute overcrowding in facilities in Elbasan, Fier (a new facility), Rrogozhina, Lushnja, Peqin, and Lezha. Overcrowding was worse in pretrial detention centers. In some cases, prison officials placed inmates not subject to disciplinary measures in isolation cells due to a lack of space elsewhere. Conditions in prison and detention centers for women were generally better than those for men.
The official cause of death for persons who died in detention was reported to be natural causes; there were no reports, however, of investigations to verify those conclusions. In six of the 10 reported cases of death in the penitentiary system in 2017, relatives complained that state authorities closed the files immediately without further investigation.
Prison and detention center conditions varied significantly by age and type of facility. The Office of the Ombudsman, the AHC, and ARCT identified problems in both new and old structures, such as dampness in cells, poor hygiene, lack of bedding materials, and inconsistent water and electricity supply. ARCT also reported some facilities had dirty bathroom facilities, no hot water, and insects.
According to ARCT, the number of inmates with mental health issues increased during the year. The Office of the Ombudsman and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that authorities held inmates with mental disabilities in regular prisons, where access to mental health care was wholly inadequate.
In its May report, the CPT also expressed serious concern that psychiatric patients at the Zaharia Special Facility for Ill Inmates in Kruja and the Prison Hospital in Tirana continued to be held under conditions that, in the CPT’s view, “could easily be considered for many patients to be inhuman and degrading.” The report also noted that living conditions in both facilities had deteriorated since the CPT’s previous visit in 2014. The government set up a working group in March 2017 to close the Zaharia prison and transfer patients to another facility.
Conditions in facilities operated by the Ministry of Interior, such as police stations and temporary detention facilities, were inadequate, except for regional facilities in Tirana (excluding its commissariats, which are smaller units falling under regional police directorates), Durres, Gjirokaster, Kukes, Fier, and Korca. Some detention facilities were unheated during the winter, and some lacked basic hygienic amenities, such as showers or sinks. Facilities were cramped, had limited access to toilets and little or no ventilation, natural light, or beds and benches. Camera monitoring systems were nonexistent or insufficient in the majority of police stations.
Prisoners serving sentences for terrorism convictions in Fushe-Kruja were frequently isolated without adherence to a clear process governing their detention or a deradicalization or rehabilitation program.
Administration: The Office of the Ombudsman reported prison and police officials generally cooperated with investigations. The General Directorate for Prisons (GDP) received 77 complaints through July, while the Office of the Ombudsman received 276 complaints from detainees and inmates through August. The majority concerned the quality of health care, prisoner welfare, and overcrowding. The Office of the Ombudsman, however, did not refer any cases for prosecution.
Corruption continued to be a serious problem in detention centers, particularly in connection with access to work and special release programs. In May, the former general director of prisons, Artur Zoto, was convicted for his involvement in creating fake procurement documents for food-supply companies. On September 19, however, the Serious Crimes Court of Appeals reversed the verdict. In July the former deputy general director of prisons, Iljaz Labi, was convicted on similar corruption charges and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and banned from public office for five years. During the year, several other senior prison staff were arrested and convicted for supplying drugs to prisoners or demanding payment for family visits.
Independent Monitoring: The government allowed local and international human rights groups, the media, and international bodies such as the CPT to monitor prisons and detention facilities. In 2017 the Office of the Ombudsman conducted frequent unannounced inspections of detention facilities. The Office of the Ombudsman inspected two detention centers during the year. ARCT reported that the government favored some NGOs over others.
Improvements: The GDP reported that, as of July, overall prison overcrowding had dropped to 3 percent from 4 percent in 2017. Both the Office of the Ombudsman and NGOs reported a decrease in cases of physical and psychological abuse in prisons.
A new EU-funded prison in Shkoder for 180 pretrial detainees and 600 inmates opened on August 3.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law and constitution prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Ministry of Interior oversees the Guard of the Republic and the State Police, which includes the Border and Migration Police. The State Police is primarily responsible for internal security. The Guard of the Republic protects senior state officials, foreign dignitaries, and certain state properties. The Ministry of Defense oversees the armed forces, which also assist the population in times of humanitarian need. The State Intelligence Service (SIS) gathers information, carries out foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities, and is responsible to the prime minister. Constitutional amendments adopted in 2016 require the government to create a new investigation service, the National Bureau of Investigation, to work with a special prosecution office to investigate corruption and organized crime.
While the government had mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption, police corruption remained a problem. SIAC received 3,832 telephone complaints through the anticorruption “green line” through August and 6,439 telephone complaints in 2017. The service also received 1,217 written complaints through August and 1,048 in 2017. The majority of the complaints alleged a failure to act, arbitrary action, abuse of office, or a violation of standard operating procedures. Through August, SIAC filed 77 administrative violations, recommending 133 police officers for disciplinary proceedings, and referred six cases for prosecution. The Office of the Ombudsman also processed complaints against police officers, mainly concerning problems with arrests and detentions.
Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over police, the Guard of the Republic, the armed forces, and SIS, although officials periodically used state resources for personal gain and members of the security forces committed abuses.
Police did not always enforce the law equitably. Personal associations, political or criminal connections, poor infrastructure, lack of equipment, and inadequate supervision often influenced law enforcement. Poor leadership contributed to continued corruption and unprofessional behavior. Authorities continued to make efforts to address these problems by renovating police facilities, upgrading vehicles, and publicly highlighting anticorruption measures. The Ministry of Interior has established a system of vetting security officials, but the Assembly has not appropriated funds to support it.
Impunity remained a serious problem, although the government made greater efforts to address it, in particular by increasing the use of camera evidence to document and prosecute police misconduct.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law requires that, except for arrests made during the commission of a crime, police arrest a suspect on criminal grounds with a warrant issued by a judge and based on sufficient evidence. There were no reports of secret arrests. By law, police must immediately inform the prosecutor of an arrest. The prosecutor may release the suspect or petition the court within 48 hours to hold the individual further. A court must also decide within 48 hours whether to place a suspect in detention, require bail, prohibit travel, or require the defendant to report regularly to police. Prosecutors requested, and courts ordered, detention in many criminal cases, although courts sometimes denied prosecutors’ requests for detention of well-connected, high-profile defendants.
By law, police should transfer detainees to the custody of the Ministry of Justice, which has facilities for detention exceeding 10 hours. Due to overcrowding in the prison system, detainees, including juveniles, commonly remained in police detention centers for periods well in excess of the mandated 10-hour maximum.
There was one reported case of police failing to bring suspects before a judge within the required time. On March 31, Kukes police arrested 23 protesters (and issued warrants for 30 others) for burning toll booths on the Durres-Kukes National Highway. Police brought the detainees to court more than 48 hours after they arrested them. The Office of the Ombudsman criticized police for recording the time they processed the protestors, rather than the time of arrest. The Office of the Ombudsman recommended that the general prosecutor pursue administrative measures against the prosecutors handling the case.
The constitution requires authorities to inform detained persons immediately of their rights and the charges against them. Law enforcement authorities did not always respect this requirement. The law provides for bail and a system is operational; police frequently release detainees without bail, on the condition they report regularly to the police station. Courts also often ordered suspects to report to police or prosecutors on a weekly basis. While the law gives detainees the right to prompt access to an attorney, at public expense if necessary, NGOs reported interrogations often took place without the presence of a lawyer. Authorities placed many suspects under house arrest, often at their own request, because, if convicted, they receive credit for time served.
Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention. Although the government generally observed these prohibitions, there were instances when police detained persons for questioning for inordinate lengths of time without formally arresting them.
Pretrial Detention: While the law requires completion of most pretrial investigations within three months, a prosecutor may extend this period. The law provides that pretrial detention should not exceed three years. Extended pretrial detention often occurred due to delayed investigations, defense mistakes, or the intentional failure of defense counsel to appear. The law enables judges to hold offending attorneys in contempt of court. Limited material resources, lack of space, poor court-calendar management, insufficient staff, and failure of attorneys and witnesses to appear prevented the court system from adjudicating cases in a timely fashion. As of July, 39.4 percent of the prison and detention center population was in pretrial detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political pressure, intimidation, widespread corruption, and limited resources sometimes prevented the judiciary from functioning independently and efficiently. Court hearings were often not open to the public. Court security officers frequently refused to admit observers to hearings and routinely telephoned the presiding judge to ask whether to admit an individual seeking to attend a particular hearing. Some agencies exhibited a pattern of disregard for court orders.
The government implemented an internationally monitored process to vet judges and dismiss those with unexplained wealth or ties to organized crime. As of August, 44 percent of judges and prosecutors who had undergone vetting had failed and been dismissed. As a result, only two of nine judges remained on the Constitutional Court; the others had been dismissed during the vetting process or resigned before undergoing vetting, which deprived the court of a quorum. As of August, 15 of the 19 seats on the Supreme Court were also vacant, and the court faced a considerable case backlog. The politicization of appointments to the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court threatened to undermine the independence and integrity of these institutions.
The Ministry of Justice generally did not vigorously pursue disciplinary measures against judges. When it did, the High Council of Justice (HCJ) was reluctant to enact the measures. As of August, the Ministry of Justice had initiated disciplinary proceedings against four judges. The HCJ rejected the request to dismiss them, and issued a public reprimand for one. The HCJ ordered the suspension of four appellate-court judges following investigations for corruption. One was arrested after a search of his home revealed cash in different currencies worth 250,000 euros ($288,000). His trial was ongoing at year’s end, although he accepted the evidence against him, which would result in some leniency during sentencing. A second case involved appeals judges who accepted trips to expensive soccer matches in Western Europe from litigants. The accused judges had been changing lawyers frequently to delay the start of trial.
The constitution and law provide for a fair and public trial. The law presumes defendants to be innocent until convicted. It provides for defendants to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary, and to have a fair and public trial without undue delay. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial, consult an attorney, and have one provided at public expense if they cannot afford one. The law provides defendants adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and access to interpretation free of charge. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence in their defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal. The government generally respected these rights, although trials were not always public and access to a lawyer was at times problematic. To protect the rights of defendants and their access to the evidence against them, a prosecutor must apply to a preliminary hearing judge and make a request to send the case to trial.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
While individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations, courts were susceptible to corruption, inefficiency, intimidation, and political tampering. Judges held many court hearings in their offices, demonstrating a lack of transparency and professionalism and providing opportunities for corruption. These factors undermined the judiciary’s authority, contributed to controversial court decisions, and led to an inconsistent application of civil law. Despite the statutory right to free legal aid in civil cases, NGOs reported that very few individuals benefitted from this during the year.
Persons who had exhausted remedies in domestic courts could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In many cases, authorities did not enforce ECHR rulings, especially those concerning the right to a fair trial.
Persons who were political prisoners under the former communist regime continued to petition the government for compensation. The government made some progress on disbursing compensation during the year.
The Office of the Ombudsman and NGOs reported that some claimants still struggle to obtain due process from the government for property claims. Thousands of claims for private and religious property confiscated during the communist era remained unresolved with the Agency for Property Treatment. Claimants may appeal to the ECHR; many cases are pending ECHR review. The Office of the Ombudsman reported that as of August, the ECHR had tried seven cases that involved millions of Euros in claims. The Office of the Ombudsman repeated that the government, generally, paid out according to the timeframe that the ECHR determined.
The country endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009 and the Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010. It does not have any restitution or compensation laws relating to Holocaust-era confiscations of private property. Under the law, religious communities have the same restitution and compensation rights as natural or legal persons. The government reported no property claims had been submitted by victims of the Holocaust.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and laws prohibit such actions, but there were reports the government failed to respect those prohibitions. As of August, the Office of the Ombudsman had received 30 citizen complaints against local Inspectorates for the Protection of Territory and nine against the National Inspectorate for the Protection of Territory (NIPT), which regulate construction, domestic development, and water resources. The Office of the Ombudsman noted there was an increase in the number of complaints for illegal, irregular, or overdue actions of local and national inspectorates. Residents in Shkoza complained that NIPT had begun to demolish their properties even though they had already started the legalization process. Some of them had documents showing legal title to the property but had not received compensation when the demolition started. The Albanian Islamic Community received similar complaints from frustrated citizens due to a lack of results in receiving compensation from the process.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. There were reports that the government, business, and criminal groups sought to influence the media in inappropriate ways.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of viewpoints, although there were efforts to exert direct and indirect political and economic pressure on the media, including by threats and violence against journalists who tried to investigate crime and corruption. Business owners freely used media outlets to gain favor and promote their interests with political parties. Most owners of private television stations used the content of their broadcasts to influence government action toward their other businesses. Political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding constrained independent print media, and journalists reportedly practiced self-censorship. Economic insecurity due to a lack of enforceable labor contracts reduced reporters’ independence and contributed to bias in reporting. The Albanian Journalists Union continued to report significant delays in salary payments to reporters at most media outlets, in some instances of up to 10 months. Financial problems led some journalists to rely more heavily on outside sources of income, leading to questions of integrity.
NGOs maintained that professional ethics were a low priority for some of the estimated 700-plus news portals in the country, raising concerns over the spread of false news stories that benefited specific financial or political interests. The dramatic growth in online media outlets provided a diversity of views.
In its annual Media Sustainability Index (MSI), the International Research and Exchanges Board indicated that free speech, plurality of news sources, and supporting institutions experienced a slight increase, but professionalism and business management decreased. Economic crisis and management practices in Albanian media have reduced finances and the quality of reporting in media outlets. The MSI noted that strain on media finances has led to cutbacks in newsrooms and has fostered self-censorship.
The independence of the Audiovisual Media Authority, the regulator of the broadcast media market, remained questionable, but the role of the authority remained limited.
Violence and Harassment: There were multiple reports of violence and intimidation against members of the media, and political and business interests subjected journalists to pressure.
On August 30, an unknown assailant shot 10 times at the home of crime reporter Klodiana Lala’s parents. No injuries were reported, but Lala’s two daughters were in the home at the time of the attack. Lala often reported on organized crime and law enforcement matters, including judicial reform. In a Facebook post after the attack, Lala stated she believed the attack was linked to her reporting. Police were investigating the attack.
In September the chair of the Union of Albanian Journalists stated that 12 journalists had filed asylum requests in EU member states, citing threats due to their jobs.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists often practiced self-censorship to avoid violence and harassment and as a response to pressure from publishers and editors seeking to advance their political and economic interests. A 2015 survey by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) Albania, an organization that focuses on investigative journalism, found that large commercial companies and important advertisers were key sources of pressure. A study published by the Union of Albanian Journalists in April cited censorship and self-censorship as leading problems for journalists.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law permits private parties to file criminal charges and obtain financial compensation for insult or deliberate publication of defamatory information. NGOs reported that the fines, which could be as much as three million leks ($27,800), were excessive and, combined with the entry of a conviction into the defendant’s criminal record, undermined freedom of expression. In April the Union of Albanian Journalists expressed concern that during the first four months of the year, judges and politicians had initiated 14 lawsuits against journalists.
In 2017 a member of the High Council of Justice, Gjin Gjoni, filed defamation lawsuits against two BIRN journalists and two journalists of the daily Shqiptarja.com for their coverage of his asset declaration, which prosecutors were investigating. Gjoni was seeking seven million leks ($64,800) from BIRN and four million leks ($37,000) from Shqiptarja.com, claiming the stories damaged his reputation. After several hearings, the court ruled in March to drop the Shqiptarja case because Gjoni and his lawyers had failed to appear at five of the 11 hearings. In June the court dismissed the case against BIRN. Gjoni appealed both decisions and the cases are pending.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
The Authority for Electronic and Postal Communications decreed on October 15 that 44 media web portals had 72 hours to obtain a tax identification number and publish it on their web pages or the government would shut them down. The list included several investigative news sites, including BIRN. At year’s end, the government had not shut down noncompliant portals.
According to March data from Internet World Stats, approximately 66 percent of the population used the internet.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Police allowed UNHCR, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the NGO Caritas to monitor the processing, detention, and deportation of some migrants, especially in southern Albania.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: UNHCR reported a few cases of police intimidation and reluctance to accept requests for asylum. UNHCR received only one report of violence. It shared the report with the government, which took measures to address the complaint.
Authorities often detained irregular migrants who entered the country. As of August 23, authorities had detained approximately 67 migrants, mostly at the country’s southern border with Greece; most of those who did not request asylum were deported to Greece within 24 hours. Migrants detained further inland could spend several weeks at the Karrec closed migrant detention facility awaiting deportation. UNHCR reported that conditions at the Karrec center were unsuitable, particularly for families and children.
Through July, the Ministry of Interior reported there were 2,328 asylum seekers, including 184 boys and 105 girls, in the National Center for Asylum Seekers in the Babrru open detention center. UNHCR reported there were 2,947 asylum seekers in total through August, more than 50 percent of all migrants tracked passing through the country.
In-country Movement: To receive government services, individuals changing place of residence within the country must transfer their civil registration to their new community and prove the legality of their new domicile through property ownership, a property rental agreement, or utility bills. Many persons could not provide proof and thus lacked access to public services. Other citizens, particularly Roma and Balkan-Egyptians, lacked formal registration in the communities where they resided. The law does not prohibit their registration, but it was often difficult to complete. Many Roma and Balkan-Egyptians lacked the financial means to register, and many lacked the motivation to go through the process.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
There were credible reports from NGOs, migrants, and asylum seekers that authorities did not follow due process procedures for some asylum seekers and that in other cases those seeking asylum did not have access to the system. UNHCR, Caritas, and the Office of the Ombudsman were critical of the government’s migrant screening and detention procedures. There were reports of border police pushing migrants back into Greece.
The law on asylum requires authorities to grant or deny asylum within 51 days of an applicant’s initial request. Under the law, asylum seekers cannot face criminal charges of illegal entry if they contact authorities within 10 days of their arrival in the country. UNHCR reported that the asylum system lacked effective monitoring.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law prohibits individuals from safe countries of origin or transit from applying for asylum or refugee status. UNHCR reported, however, that no asylum requests had been refused based on the government’s list of safe countries, which included Greece.
Employment: The law permits refugees to work. The limited issuance of refugee identification cards and work permits, however, meant few refugees had employment opportunities.
Access to Basic Services: The law provides migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees access to public services, including education, health care, housing, law enforcement, courts and judicial procedures, and legal assistance. Migrants and asylum seekers often required the intervention of UNHCR or local NGOs to secure these services.
The government does not have reliable data regarding the total number of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness in the country.
In July, UNHCR and its partner, the Tirana Legal Aid Society, published a report mapping the population at risk of statelessness in the country. The report identified 1,031 persons at risk of statelessness, 97 percent of whom were children. The report concluded that most of those at risk of statelessness were entitled to nationality under the law on citizenship, but exercising this right was difficult. Most of the persons at risk were Roma or Balkan-Egyptian children. Unregistered children born abroad to returning migrant families were at risk of statelessness, although the law affords the opportunity to obtain nationality.