Albanian judges face scrutiny over early release decisions
According to data from the General Directorate of Prisons of Albania, some 2,160 people are currently detained in Albanian prisons, of whom 8% are serving life sentences and 15% are serving sentences of more than 20 years.
Under Article 64 of the Albanian Penal Code, prisoners sentenced to more than five years can only be granted conditional release after having served three quarters of their sentence. Those serving a life sentence must be behind bars for at least 35 years before they can be considered for parole.
In Berisha’s case, the Criminal Collegium of the High Court found that this provision was breached by the Durres Court of Appeal in 2016 when it granted him bail. He also miscalculated the time he had already served as approximately two years.
Berisha was initially sentenced to life behind bars. In 2014, however, the High Court ruled the sentence unfair and reduced it to 25 years. Two years later, he is free.
“The High Court has set several very dangerous precedents by changing court orders from life imprisonment to other prison sentences, which suggests that nothing is certain here,” Koci said.
Another member of the Durres gang, Indrit Dokle, was also sentenced to life in 2012 but was released in 2020 based on a decision by Judge Enkelejda Hoxha in the town of Kruje, just north of Tirana. Dokle has benefited from three parliament decisions aimed at massively reducing sentences for certain crimes as well as extending the length of pre-trial detention.
Hoxha also signed in 2017 the early release of Genc Tafili, who was convicted in 2001 of murdering a police chief in the northern city of Shkodra. Albanian law does not allow the early release of those convicted of killing police officers, but Tafili was freed after serving 21 years and seven months of a 25-year sentence, including pre-trial detention.
Hoxha was arrested in 2021 for corruption in another case and was removed from her position by the High Council of Judges. Although found guilty and sentenced at first instance to two years and eight months in prison, Hoxha appealed her dismissal. BIRN could not reach his attorney for comment.
In another case, in 2019, Judge Markelian Kuqo of the Magistrates’ Court in Korca, eastern Albania, approved the parole of Gerd Gjinerari, who was sentenced to life for a murder committed in Milan, Italy. , in 1997. Citing prison and probation staff evaluations, Kuqo said Gjinerari had been “rehabilitated”.
The Korca Court of Appeal overturned the decision, noting that Kuqo had been transferred to Korca prison only 11 days before Kuqo’s decision, meaning that it was impossible for prison staff to judge his conduct. But like Berisha, Gjinerari was already on the run.
The case led the High Council to fire Kuqo in December 2020. He appealed. Kuqo declined to comment for this story but provided BIRN with a copy of his defense, which says his decision to release Gjinerari was based on recommendations from Korca prison officials and the local probation service.
Arben Grori, who was convicted alongside Gjinerari for the 1997 murder, also benefited from a decision to reduce his 720-day sentence in an apparent violation of Article 64. The decision was made by Judge Taulant Tafa in Elbasan, in central Albania, which is now in the crosshairs of the High Inspector of Justice, Artur Metani.
Metani found that Grori had applied a different standard in the Tafa case to 155 other cases he had adjudicated on, seven of which involved life sentences.
Metani told BIRN his office scrutinized parole decisions closely; in 2020, it initiated a review of some 4,600 judgments by 18 courts and noted numerous cases in which convicts had received “unfair benefits… in contravention of and in serious and continued disregard of substantive and procedural criminal laws.”
Metani has called for the dismissal of four judges, including Tafa. Three have been dismissed, while the Tafa case is ongoing.
Metani said the violations stemmed from decisions that “were not sufficiently reasoned” or that “distorted” the facts. He stressed, however, that these cases were not representative of all courts or prosecutors’ offices.