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EU and leading NGO unite in calling for adoption of key judicial reform in #Albania



albania parliament 640x480Leading non-governmental organisation Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) has joined forces with senior European Union political figures in urging members of Albania’s opposition Democratic Party to back planned reforms seen as crucial in boosting the country’s EU accession ambitions, writes Martin Banks.

HRWF, a respected, Brussels-based international advocacy group, called the reforms "essential to guarantee the independence of the judiciary" in the country.

Its intervention on Friday comes after leading German MEP Knut Fleckenstein, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Albania’s EU accession, and the EU’s enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn, made a similar response to current protests by Albania’s Democrat Party.

The Democrats (DP) have blocked the main boulevard in the capital Tirana for several days saying they do not trust the left-wing government to hold June 18 parliamentary elections fairly. DP plans to boycott parliament, a move which the EU fears could delay the planned implementation of a key justice system reform, which aims to create institutions for the vetting of some 800 judges and prosecutors.

The judicial reform is the main step toward launching Albania’s EU membership negotiations. It seeks to root out bribery and ensure that judges and prosecutors are independent from politics.

The DP, which also warns if may boycott parliamentary elections on June 18, has been pushing for electronic voting to allay fears of vote manipulation. But the government has said there is not enough time to implement this for the elections.

The EU wants a revamped judiciary tackling widespread corruption before it starts accession talks with Tirana. The reforms will exclude criminal offenders from public office, provide whistleblower protection and re-evaluate judges, prosecutors and legal advisors.

Hahn told EU Reporter he “very much regrets” the parliamentary boycott announced by the opposition.

Hahn said: “The political debate should not take place outside, but inside the parliament. Cooperation of government and opposition is crucial for the country’s ambition to join the EU. In particular, it is of utmost importance to maintain parliamentary continuity in a time where substantial reforms are on the agenda of the parliament, such as the setting up of the vetting bodies in the framework of the justice reform and the electoral reform including the follow-up of the OSCE/ODIHR election observation recommendations which are essential for ensuring free and fair elections later this year. These reforms are crucial for Albania to move forward on its EU integration path."

The Albanian PM Edi Rama and the country’s ruling party have been praised for pressing for the vetting law and justice reform and Hahn’s comments are endorsed by Fleckenstein, a Socialist MEP who said it was up to Albania’s politicians to implement the reform and start negotiations.

In a reference to the DP’s parliamentary boycott, Fleckenstein, who is deputy leader of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, said: “I really ask the colleagues and friends at the Democratic Party to come back to work.”

Elsewhere, Willy Fautre, director of respected Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, also called on DP to call off its boycott.

On Friday (24 February), Fautre told this website: “The place of Albania is in the EU family of democratic states. The political debate about free and fair elections in June should not block the justice reform process.The new legislation which has been drafted by the EU and the US but also endorsed by the CoE is essential to guarantee the independence of the judiciary and the non-interference of political and other actors in the administering of justice.”

Fautre said: “The opposition should stop boycotting the Parliament so that the democratic legislative process can be resumed and bring Albania closer to EU membership. The sooner the better for both parties.”

The EU’s ambassador to Tirana, Romana Vlahutin, agreed, saying: “We know there are some individuals that don’t want this reform and we know why. But justice will come, despite the repeated attempts to postpone it. There is no time to vote for a new draft and the actual one has our full support. The European future of Albania is more important that the future of some corrupted people.”

EU and US experts were directly involved in drafting the reform, which was verified by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe.Though Albanian lawmakers, including the Democrats, unanimously voted in the reform last year, DP later abstained from voting on how to vet the judges.

Albania’s ruling coalition has won all recent local elections and the government led by Rama has overseen a spell of steady economic growth.This is part of its transition to a market-oriented democracy.

Rama said: “True reforms are not easy at all, and often very painful operations. But there is no safe future for the country, our society and children if we do not operate with courage on the rotten parts of the state organisation.”

MEPs from various parties have welcomed Albania’s progress on EU-related reforms and further efforts to reform the judicial sector, which is a key demand of Albania’s citizens and a factor in restoring trust in public institutions.

Fleckenstein, a foreign affairs committee member, adds,“Since summer 2014 Albania has been an EU accession candidate and since then it has been making constant progress. The adoption of a wide-ranging judicial reform is a milestone on Albania’s path towards joining the EU and becoming a modern country. Less corruption, less organised crime is crucial for everyday life in Albania. However, we should not put off the decision on the start of accession negotiations again and again.”

A European Parliament resolution on Albania was approved recently by 546 votes to 85, and notes that credible implementation of justice reform, good progress in fighting organized crime and corruption, and holding free and fair elections in June 2017 could prove to be a key to advancing the EU accession process and starting negotiations.

Albania, once an isolated country in the Balkans suffering under one of the most severe Communist dictatorships after WWII, is now a member of NATO and a leading candidate for EU accession.

But adoption of the reform package last year, together with the constructive attitude that Albania has adopted in the context of the refugee crisis, serve as further examples of the strong national political momentum and desire to see the country advance on its EU membership path.While Albania hopes to be in a position now to be able to open accession negotiations soon, the EU is likely to first look for the proof of the pudding in the implementation of the reforms.

As Fleckenstein said: “It is important for Albania to maintain today’s reform momentum and we must be ready to support it as much as possible in this process”.


Over 40 arrested in biggest-ever crackdown against drug ring smuggling cocaine from Brazil into Europe



In the early hours of the morning (27 November), more than a thousand police officers with the support of Europol carried out co-ordinated raids against the members of this highly professional criminal syndicate. Some 180 house searches were executed, resulting in the arrest of 45 suspects. 

The investigation uncovered that this drug trafficking network was responsible for the annual importation of at least 45 tonnes of cocaine into the main European seaports, with profits exceeding €100 million over the course of 6 months.

This international sting, led by the Portuguese, Belgian and Brazilian authorities, was carried out simultaneously by agencies from three different continents, with coordination efforts facilitated by Europol:

  • Europe: Portuguese Judicial Police (Polícia Judiciária), Belgian Federal Judicial Police (Federale Gerechtelijke Politie, Police Judiciaire Fédérale), Spanish National Police (Policia Nacional), Dutch Police (Politie) and the Romanian Police (Poliția Română)
  • South America: Brazilian Federal Police (Policia Federal)
  • Middle East: Dubai Police Force and Dubai State Security

Results in brief 

  • 45 arrests in Brazil (38), Belgium (4), Spain (1) and Dubai (2).
  • 179 house searches.
  • Over €12m in cash seized in Portugal, €300,000 in cash seized in Belgium and over R$1m and US$169,000 in cash seized in Brazil.
  • 70 luxury vehicles seized in Brazil, Belgium and Spain and 37 aircrafts seized in Brazil.
  • 163 houses seized in Brazil worth in excess of R$132m, two houses seized in Spain worth €4m, and two apartments seized in Portugal worth €2.5m.
  • Financial assets of 10 individuals frozen in Spain.

Global co-operation 

In the framework of intelligence activities underway with its operational counterparts, Europol developed reliable intelligence concerning the international drug trafficking and money laundering activities of a Brazilian organized crime network operating in several EU countries.

The criminal syndicate had direct contact with drug cartels in Brazil and other South American source countries who were responsible for the preparation and the shipments of cocaine in maritime containers bound to major European seaports.

The scale of cocaine importation from Brazil to Europe under their control and command is massive and over 52 tonnes of cocaine were seized by law enforcement over the course of the investigation.

In April 2020, Europol brought together the involved countries who have since been working closely together to establish a joint strategy to bring down the whole network. The main targets were identified on either sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Since then, Europol has provided continuous intelligence development and analysis to support the field investigators. During the action day, a total of 8 of its officers were deployed on-the-ground in Portugal, Belgium and Brazil to assist there the national authorities, ensuring swift analysis of new data as it was being collected during the action and adjusting the strategy as required.

Commenting on this operation, Europol’s Deputy Director Wil van Gemert said: "This operation highlights the complex structure and vast reach of Brazilian organized crime groups in Europe. The scale of the challenge faced today by police worldwide calls for a coordinated approach to tackle the drug trade across continents. The commitment of our partner countries to work via Europol underpinned the success of this operation and serves as a continued global call to action."

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Navalny calls on Europe to follow the money



The European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee held an exchange of views with representatives of the Russian political opposition and NGOs on the current political and socio-economic situation in Russia.

Among the speakers was Alexei Navalny, who has recently recovered from being poisoned with a nerve agent similar to the one used in the Salisbury attack targeted at Sergei Skirpal and his daughter. 

Navalny called on Europe to adopt a new strategy towards Russia, that meets the new developments in Russian state leadership. He said that the forthcoming elections for the State Duma would be an absolutely crucial event and that everyone should be able to participate. If opposition politicians are not allowed to participate he asked the European Parliament and every European politician not to recognize the outcome.

Navalny told MEPs that it was not enough to sanction those responsible for carrying out his poisoning and that there was little sense in sanctioning those who didn’t travel a lot or who didn’t own assets in Europe. Instead, he said the main question that should be asked is who gained financially from Putin’s regime. Navalny pointed to the oligarchs, not just the old ones, but the new ones in Putin’s inner circle, with name-checks for Usmanov and Roman Abramovich. He said that these sanctions would be warmly welcomed by most Russians. 

On the various decisions of the European Court of Human Rights that have been ignored by the Russian judiciary, Navalny said it would be very easy to sanction them to prevent them from traveling to Europe and it would be very effective.

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Commission approves German scheme to compensate accommodation providers in the field of child and youth education for damages suffered due to the coronavirus outbreak



The European Commission approved, under EU state aid rules, a German scheme to compensate accommodation providers for child and youth education for the loss of revenue caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The public support will take the form of direct grants. The scheme will compensate up to 60% of the loss of revenues incurred by eligible beneficiaries in the period between the beginning of the lockdown (which started on different dates across the regional states) and 31 July 2020 when their accommodation facilities had to be closed due to the restrictive measures implemented in Germany.

When calculating the loss of revenue, any reductions in costs resulting from income generated during the lockdown and any possible financial aid granted or actually paid out by the state (and in particular granted under scheme SA.58464) or third parties to cope with the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak will be deducted. At the central government level, facilities eligible to apply will have at their disposal a budget of up to €75 million.

However, these funds are not earmarked exclusively for this scheme. In addition, regional authorities (at Länder or local level) may also make use of this scheme from the local budgets. In any event, the scheme ensures that the same eligible costs cannot be compensated twice by different administrative levels. The Commission assessed the measure under Article 107(2)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which enables the Commission to approve state aid measures granted by member states to compensate specific companies or specific sectors for the damages caused by exceptional occurrences, such as the coronavirus outbreak.

The Commission found that the German scheme will compensate damages that are directly linked to the coronavirus outbreak. It also found that the measure is proportionate, as the envisaged compensation does not exceed what is necessary to make good the damages. The Commission therefore concluded that the scheme is in line with EU state aid rules.

More information on actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.59228 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website.

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