The December 2010 elections were marred by fraud and manipulation. Now, those charged are having their day in court.
By Muhamet Brajshori and Safet Kabashi for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 21/04/12
Ballot stuffing and political manipulation were rampant during the vote. [Reuters]
In what is the biggest case presented before the Kosovo justice system, the Prosecutors Office has indicted 1,343 people for election fraud -- abusing the right to vote and destroying voting documents -- stemming from the December 2010 elections. It is estimated that 931 additional people will be accused in Pristina and Prizren.
Laura Pula, co-ordinator of the prosecutor’s team on election fraud, told SETimes that municipal prosecutors have worked to bring individuals who manipulated votes during the elections to justice, but it was a challenge.
"It is the first prosecution of its kind that deals with serious consideration and [we] had to work fast on the cases involving a process with so many participants," Pula said.
Seb Bytyci, executive director of the Balkan Policy Institute, told SETimes that the capacity of courts in Kosovo is limited in dealing with such a large caseload.
"Kosovo has the least proportion of judges in Europe -- 14 judges per every 25,100 inhabitants -- and in that situation the capacity of courts is weak. But this does not mean that courts should use this as an excuse for a lack of trials. Cases must be judged strictly and penalties given to prevent fraud; not just symbolic sentences, as has happened so far," Bytyci said.
Pula said that for the prosecution, the clarification of election fraud was a priority.
"It created confusion during the general election in the media and civil society. … To be transparent with everyone, we published periodic reports on the progress of the investigation and clarification of the manipulations. We could not stand idly by when we see such cases of fraud and not make it a priority," said Pula.
Bytyci agrees. "It is not important whether or not there was an ordering level -- manipulation of elections is a criminal offence and each case should be punished, regardless of which level it is," he said.
"The level of fraud has been very great, and the legitimacy of institutions is damaged … we have frustration among citizens and the democratic process that is very worrying, especially given that Kosovo has just entered the path of democratisation," Bytyci told SETimes.
Pula says those who are convicted will be barred from working with the election process for four years, in addition to serving any sentence they receive.
"[There will be] other measures taken by the Central Election Commission and other institutions, such as cleaning complete voter lists, organising elections in the summer when the day is longer, and opening counting centres," Bytyci said.
Pula said that it is important that the convictions raise awareness in the future.
"We would like more decisions to be high, since mostly sentences are fines or parole. This has prompted us to present complaints [against] almost all of the court decisions so far. I can say that in over 90% of the cases, we have filed complaints."
Adrian Bejtullahu from the Citizen Democracy in Action, a local NGO in Pristina, served as an election observer.
"It was terrible for democracy to see what happened in December 2010 -- representatives from all parties manipulated [the vote] -- faking signatures, bailouts, etc., just to win -- [ignoring] the impact it had on democracy and the will of the people," Bejtullahu told SETimes.
The Municipal Court in Ferizaj sentenced three election commissioners -- Naim Sahiti (PDK), Agron Zeqiri (Self-determination) and Agim Ramadani (LDK) -- to six months in prison in February. The three were found guilty of abuses during the 2010 election process in the village of Softaj.
The panel of judges -- led by Bashkim Hyseni -- said that the officials stuffed the ballot box with 274 names supporting their candidates and removed 171 votes for their opponents.
"With these rulings, we want to make clear to all commissioners involved in the elections and to those [planning to be] part of the next elections to be careful, and to produce a process with dignity," Hyseni told SETimes. "The court will continue sentencing all those people abusing with the vote, even if it is a matter of a single one, because it damages the entire process."
Responding to prosecutors’ complaints that the court is not handing out tough enough sentences, the judge explained that the level of implication against each of the accused is different, and that in some cases, full charges were not proved. "The court has sentenced considerable tough punishments -- we have sentenced people to prison," Hyseni said.