Corruption Allegations Cast Doubt on the EU in Kosovo and Open Old, Deep Wounds

A series of damning leaks could be opening a rift between the EU and its largest foreign mission, and brought new claims about organ trafficking allegations.

by Jack Davies
Nov 5 2014, 6:55pm

Photo by Atdhe Mulla

The European Union mission in Kosovo (EULEX) has been responsible for ensuring rule of law and fighting corruption there since 2008. Yet a cache of leaked documents has left many here, and elsewhere, questioning its ability to fulfill its mandate.

If genuine, they provide a chronicle of serious corruption among senior justice officials within the mission. They have also reopened old wounds in the Balkans, including allegations of organ trafficking during the Kosovo War and deep frustration with international organizations in the region.

Today EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini announced that she intends to "appoint as a matter of urgency an independent and experienced legal expert to review the mission's mandate implementation, with a particular focus on the handling of the allegations of corruption."

The documents were leaked to leading Kosovar newspaper Koha Ditore, which has been reporting on them since October 27. Three days earlier, EULEX suspended one of its senior prosecutors, Maria Bamieh, pending an investigation into the leaks. Bamieh denies handing the information over but has been working with the paper to corroborate the charges since her suspension. Sources within EULEX told VICE News that the allegations were common knowledge within the organization. They said this is partly because Bamieh has been incredibly vocal about them for the last two years.

Strange Border Kidnappings in Kosovo: Correspondent Confidential. Watch it here.

Koha Ditore reported that Bamieh submitted a report to her superiors in 2012 after stumbling across incriminating telephone intercepts.

According to Balkan Insight, the transcripts appeared to record intermediaries of jailed Health Ministry official Ilir Tolaj discussing their attempts to influence then-chairman of the EULEX board of judges Francesco Florit on the outcome of Tolaj's case in a manner that would benefit the government official. Judge Florit admits meeting with an intermediary but denies taking a bribe.

Separate allegations of bribery against Judge Florit have also emerged as the scandal unfolds. In 2007, a bar in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, was bombed, leaving two dead and seven injured. The bar belonged to the chief suspect in the murder of a member of Kosovo Police's special unit.

Three of the deceased officer's colleagues were arrested on suspicion of carrying out the attack, two are currently serving time and the other was acquitted. Judge Florit was one of three judges presiding over the case and family members of the two convicted officers have come forward claiming they raised 300,000 euros ($372,000) to bribe Florit in return for acquittals. They went on to allege that the judge regarded the bribe as being sufficient to acquit just one of the accused. Again, Florit denies taking the bribe, which the acquitted officer and his lawyers also deny paying.

According to Bamieh, rather than investigate her claims, EULEX instead began disciplinary measures against her for illegally parking her car. The sight of a badly parked EULEX vehicle is a common one on Pristina's streets.

Since going public, Bamieh claims she has been subject to anonymous death threats and had her reputation trashed in the media. She spoke on Kosovar TV about fellow EULEX employees aggressively trying to dissuade her from pursuing investigations into potential corruption at the mission.

EULEX spokeswoman Dragana Nikolic-Solomon told VICE News today: "Since 2013, EULEX and Kosovo judicial authorities have been pursuing a joint investigation into these allegations." Nikolic-Solomon insisted "due diligence has been applied thoroughly" during the probe, contrary to Bamieh's claims.

Yet Bamieh is not the only one to claim to have come under fire. Koha Ditore journalist Vehbi Kajtazi told Reporters Without Borders that EULEX demanded he hand over the leaked documents prior to publishing. When he refused he claims he was threatened with prosecution. The mission denies this.

'It's up to us as Kosovars to build our country and our justice system. We opposed the EULEX idea from the very beginning.'

Kosovo declared its split from Serbia in 2008, but until 2012 existed under "supervised independence," whereby members of the international community oversaw its administration. Since then, Kosovo has been fully autonomous and the authority of international institutions must be approved by parliament. EULEX's mandate was extended earlier this year to 2016.

Yet many ordinary Kosovars are growing to resent the large international presence. The numerous organizations here are widely viewed as self-serving institutions whose illegally parked vehicles are just the visual representation of a culture of impunity.

Chief among the critics is Vetevendosje [Self-determination], a radical political movement, who declare ending the international grip on local politics as a core element of their ideology. Last Thursday the group issued a statement following a protest outside EULEX HQ. It described Kosovo's government and the rule of law mission as "two species of predatory fish" that cooperate in order to "extend the lives of each other," adding that crime and corruption have increased in six years of EULEX operation.

Photo by Atdhe Mulla.

Longtime activist and Vetevendosje parliamentary deputy Fisnik Ismaili told VICE News that his group has "always had doubts about the mission" and that this latest scandal, "confirms what we have been saying for years: that it's up to us as Kosovars to build our country and our justice system. We opposed the EULEX idea from the very beginning. It turns out that we were right, unfortunately."

But the radicals are not the only ones giving EULEX short shrift. As well as today's announcement of the EU investigation, European Parliament Vice President Ulrike Lunacek demanded last Friday that EULEX hand over its internal investigations to an independent external body. Local press are also reporting an anonymous German diplomat as saying the mission "will be closed as soon as possible" and that Germany will request a reduction in its mandate later this month.

This controversy has hit at a trying time for both Kosovo and EULEX. The country is in the grip of a political crisis that has left it without a government since June's general election. Pundits are warning that Kosovo's coffers will run dry if the deadlock is not resolved soon.

Among Bamieh's disclosures was a claim about a more politicized brand of corruption. The whistleblower claims that in 2009 sensitive information about EULEX investigations into alleged Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) organ trafficking during the 1998-99 Kosovo War was passed to agents of the Serbian intelligence agency. Bamieh said her predecessor told her that investigations were not carried out for fear of angering Serbs in Kosovo.

Allegations of organ trafficking by the KLA have been a hot topic ever since an investigation by Swiss Senator Dick Marty resulted in a 2010 report titled "Inhuman treatment of people and illicit trafficking in human organs in Kosovo," which accused its members of selling Serbian prisoners' organs.

Kosovo leaders have been accused of harvesting organs. Read more here.

The latest claims about this scandal also come at a difficult time for Kosovo and Serbia, who have been working towards the normalization of relations. Those relations have taken a frosty turn in the wake of a hostile soccer match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade on October 14. The game, the first time Albania had played in Belgrade since 1967, was called off after 43 minutes after a drone bearing an Albanian nationalist flag was flown over the field, triggering fighting and a violent pitch invasion.

Petrit Zogaj, executive director of the FOL (Speak Up) initiative, is currently preparing a response on the scandal from civil society actors in Kosovo. He told VICE News: "We thought in 2008 that EULEX could fix the judicial system, prosecutors, and police. After six years, we see the system is at the same level we had in 2008." Zogaj added that EULEX has a joint responsibility, to the people of Kosovo and to EU taxpayers who are footing the bill for the mission.

Bamieh has stated that she doesn't know whether what she has uncovered is "the tip of the iceberg." Azem Syla, a high-profile parliamentary deputy for the acting prime minister's party, has already been implicated in the scandal. If it does run deeper, it is entirely possible other serving Kosovar officials could join him.

Gabriele Meucci, new EULEX head, started his posting only days before Bamieh's suspension. Some have speculated that this scandal could be the undoing of his mandate before he even has a chance to feel at home. Whatever happens next, however, most agree that some kind of EULEX reconfiguration is highly likely.

Kosovar investigative journalist and political scientist Krenar Gashi told VICE News: "The mission has been struggling with its image and reputation since its second year of operations, mainly due to highly raised expectations and very low results in the fight against high-profile corruption and organized crime."

Gashi added: "The scandals, unfortunately, also confirm the problematic nature of EULEX as a mission." His research found that because many of its employees, including whistleblower Bamieh, were seconded to the mission by their own governments, they feel a greater allegiance to their embassies than to EULEX. This, he says, "leaves little room for tight supervision, a kind of supervision one would expect to see in a rule of law mission."

Follow Jack Davies on Twitter: @jackoozell