Albania wants the UK to help root out corruption in its legal system.
Judges in Albania are untouchable. And British help is needed if corruption is to be forced out. Those were the messages I took away from a two-day visit to Tirana at the end of last month.
I was in Albania as a guest of the Slynn Foundation, which was set up in 1998 to support young lawyers from central and eastern Europe. Named in honour of Gordon Slynn, who was a British judge at Luxembourg before serving as a law lord for 10 years, the foundation was established by George Dobry, now 95, the distinguished Polish-born lawyer and former judge.
Much of my trip was spent watching Sir Henry Brooke, a former appeal judge and vice-chairman of the foundation’s trustees, as he told Albanian lawyers, judges, officials and politicians what was wrong with their legal system and how they could put it right.
Far from resenting what might have looked like a patrician, colonial approach, the Albanians respected Brooke’s judgement – gained during his 12 previous visits to their country – and pressed him for assistance at the highest level. His work is funded by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, as was my visit. With us were Jonathan Cooper and Martha Spurrier of Doughty Street Chambers, who were giving much-needed training in human rights law to newly appointed judges.
Though European by geography – Albania is just across the Adriatic from Italy and bordered to the east by Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece – the former communist dictatorship is still a long way from its goal of joining the EU. Nicholas Cannon, the British ambassador to Tirana, told me why. ‘There is a perception among the public, and I think the judiciary accept, that there are chronic problems of corruption inside the judiciary in Albania,’ he said.
But why was it in the interests of British taxpayers to strengthen the rule of law in Albania? ‘It fits into our strategic objective of bringing Albania and the other countries of the western Balkans into the EU,’ Cannon told me. ‘But there is also a selfish interest. Weaknesses in the rule of law in Albania – in the police, the judiciary, in the investigation of crime – have a direct effect on the UK. By strengthening the legal institutions of Albania, you can hope to deal with drug traffickers and people traffickers who are having a direct impact on the streets of the United Kingdom.’
One political figure in Tirana recalled being asked for help by a parking attendant who had witnessed a shooting during a fight between two gangs: ‘He called the police; they asked him to attend an identity parade; and he identified the gang leaders. They were prosecuted. At the end of trial, only one person was found guilty. It was the parking attendant — who was convicted of giving false evidence. He was fined thousands of dollars.
‘I told him I would help him appeal,’ the political figure continued. ‘But that was not what he wanted. As he said, “If I am innocent, that makes them guilty. They’ll only bribe someone else.” He just wanted me to make sure his fine would be no more than he earned in two months.’
The main obstacle to reform seems to be Albania’s High Council of Justice, which is responsible for hiring, training, promoting, disciplining and firing judges. Its members include the president of Albania, the justice minister, the chief justice, three non-practising lawyers elected by the national assembly and nine judges elected by the judiciary.
For once, politicians are not the problem. One highly placed observer said that the judges controlled the council and could ensure that corruption remained endemic. He suggested the UK should send in a special prosecutor, presumably with a team of investigators, who could bring corrupt judges to justice.
I put that suggestion to the prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama. He chose not to answer my question directly. ‘I have a very strong belief that people cannot corrupt a good system. A bad system can corrupt people. So we need to build a system and people will accommodate it. Otherwise, if we leave the system as it is, the system will accommodate people in the wrong places.’
Rama acknowledged that corruption was a major problem. The judiciary was acting like a corporation, protecting its own special interests. But, despite his large parliamentary majority, the prime minister admitted he could not reform the judges without international support. ‘The line between a reform that gives the judiciary more space for integrity and taking independence from the judiciary is very thin,’ he told me.
‘To protect this thin line, we need a big coalition of forces, where the EU and our international partners are crucial.’
It looks as if Brooke and his fellow lawyers will be taking many more trips to Tirana.