The case of Maria Bamieh

Evidence of corruption in the ranks of EULEX may not be compelling - but the evidence that the mission initially ignored its prosecutor’s suspicions is much stronger.

It’s clear that being the center of the worst scandal in EULEX’s six-year history has taken a toll on Maria Bamieh. Sitting on a couch at her home near Film City KFOR base in Prishtina, the 55-year-old British prosecutor spoke haltingly, with the exhausted tone of a person who probably hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.

“I just want everybody to believe that I’m not a revengeful, horrible bitch,” Bamieh said, taking a drag of a cigarette.

Over the past two weeks, she has emerged as EULEX’s chief accuser in a corruption scandal that has captivated Kosovo and reverberated in the corridors of power in Brussels. According to the prosecutor, she’s simply a whistleblower who wasn’t taken seriously, and then fired for aggressively pushing the EU’s rule of law mission to properly investigate serious allegations of corruption in its own ranks. On the other side, EULEX, albeit quietly, has cast Bamieh as a disgruntled employee who was ultimately angry about losing her job amid downsizing and decided to embarrass the mission by leaking sensitive documents to the newspaper Koha Ditore. (Bamieh denies this).

Dozens of pages of internal EULEX documents, obtained by Prishtina Insight, paint a far murkier and more incomplete picture. The evidence of corruption is circumstantial – based on wiretaps and testimony whose credibility are suspect. But at the same time, it appears that that an initial complaint by Bamieh did not lead to any official investigation. The mission only took action after its intelligence unit came forward with evidence, beginning an internal investigation in May 2013, about a year after Bamieh made a complaint, according to a confidential summary of the internal investigation.

By Bamieh’s account, she stumbled upon a conspiracy to scuttle her corruption case using bribery in 2012. Conversations recorded through court-authorized intercepts include intermediaries of defendant Ilir Tolaj, an official in the ministry of Health, discussing contacts with the chief EULEX judge at the time, Francesco Florit. “I said, tell him if he takes over definitely and guarantees that the matter is done, he shall tell us, how can we and what we can do for him,” one man says in a conversation recorded on May 31, 2012.

Also troubling, according to Bamieh, was that Tolaj intermediaries were apparently getting information from the office of Jaroslava Novotna, the chief EULEX prosecutor, who seemed to be conspiring to get her taken off the case. Novotna did not respond to Prishtina Insight’s questions.

“I was shocked by what I was hearing in the intercepts,” Bamieh recalled. “I felt like I was in the middle of some John Grisham novel.”

Complaints ignored

The Tolaj corruption case was politically charged and complicated. It involved accusations that officials in the Ministry of Health had taken bribes to award health contracts.  As Bamieh worked the case in the spring and summer of 2012, Kosovo Police officers were monitoring the phones of Tolaj, who was in jail, and his associates.

According to emails she showed Prishtina Insight, Bamieh began sending concerned messages in May upon learning of the intercepted conversations that suggested an effort to bribe Florit, and the complicity of Novotna.

Bamieh also notified Signe Justesen, then head of Kosovo’s Special Prosecution Office, and took the complaint to Silvio Bonfigli, who at the time was head of EULEX’s executive arm. According to Bamieh, Bonfigli assured her that her complaints would be investigated thoroughly.

Bamieh’s emails suggest that Bonfigli was preparing to refer her complaint to the internal investigations unit, but it appears that did not happen. Bonfigli, who has since left the mission and works as a prosecutor in his native Italy, did not respond to messages from this newspaper.

Justesen, who left her post in January 2013, declined to discuss what happened during her tenure, but offered praise for Bamieh. “I can tell you however that I considered Maria a very honest and dedicated prosecutor who always did what she thought was best in finding the truth and combating crime,” Justesen wrote in an email.

Privately, EULEX officials have suggested that Bamieh may be exaggerating the extent of her complaints. They point to the way she wrote one section of the Tolaj indictment, which sounds dismissive of the evidence of any improper behavior.

When she issued her indictment in the case on July 4, 2012, Bamieh wrote: “It is not suggested that Mr Florit or Mrs Novotna were involved in the attempts to obstruct justice. It is highly likely that the individuals involved were feeding Mr Tolaj inaccurate false information for their own interests.”

Bamieh, on the other hand, said she was trying strike a balance between her obligation to disclose evidence in her criminal case and preserving any internal investigation at EULEX.

“Maybe I didn’t word it in the best way possible,” Bamieh said of the indictment. “But I was under time constraints, and Signe [Justesen] and I agreed that we would put those allegations into the indictment. We would disclose the intercept, but we would do it in a way that we do not influence the internal investigation that we believed was ongoing at that time.”

The judge who stands accused

The last two weeks haven’t treated Francesco Florit well, either. The former head EULEX judge, who now serves on the bench in Udine, Italy, had quietly faced an internal EULEX investigation going to back to 2013 into bribery allegations until Koha Ditore made them public, and Bamieh openly accused him in interviews.

The Italian judge has agreed to discuss the claims openly, even appearing head-to-head with Bamieh during a debate on Kohavision’s “Rubikon.”

Florit, who vehemently denies ever taking a single bribe or asking for one, said EULEX is wasting its time.

“The Mission should treat it for what it is, i.e. a nonsense that does not deserve attention nor further waste of time and that should be archived,” he said.

Even if any further investigations clear his name, Florit contends that his career is effectively ruined. “Who would promote or recruit a judge who has been suspected of ‘selling decisions’?” he asked.

The most serious allegation against Florit is that he took around 300,000 euros in 2009 to secure the release of a murder defendant. This allegation, too, was uncovered by Bamieh in 2013 while she was investigating the 2007 bombing of a club on Bill Clinton Boulevard, which left two people dead.

The case involved three defendants, all former members of a Kosovo Police special unit. In 2009, Besnik Hasani and Shpend Qerimi were convicted, while Nusret Cena was acquitted in a trial where Florit served as the presiding judge on a three-member panel. The three men also were tried in a 2007 triple murder that took place near Kacanik, and in that case Cena, too, was the only person acquitted, though Florit was not involved in the trial.

Family members of Hasani and Qerimi have alleged a collective effort to raise money to secure the three men’s release, and that ultimately a bribe was paid to Florit in 2009 in Durres, Albania.

According to the family’s versions of events, the money raised was not deemed sufficient by Florit to release all of the defendants, so ultimately Cena was only acquitted. Cena and his lawyers have vehemently denied this, as has Florit.

Flurim Asani, the brother of the Besnik Hasani, told EULEX investigators in 2013 and BIRN this month that that he was in Durres for a meeting between Florit and an attorney to discuss the deal. Asani said he saw Florit from afar, but did not attend the meeting.

Florit, for his part, has denied ever being in Albania in 2009, and suggests that the story is an effort to secure a retrial – which the family is urging in the Kacanik murder case.

Bamieh acknowledged the possibility that the bribery story could have been concocted. But she said there is strong reason to have suspicions about Florit, especially considering the intercepts in the Tolaj case.

“I’ve never said he’s guilty. I’ve said that there’s something here that stinks. And it stinks big time,” Bamieh said.

As for the Tolaj case, Florit has pointed out that the intercepts in the Tolaj case simply establish that people were talking about him – and that he can’t be held responsible for their statements – and that the main defendant ultimately was found guilty.  Florit does admit that he met – five or six times – with one of Tolaj’s intermediaries, a professor. The judge, however, insists that the meetings were largely innocent. The professor had mostly benign things to discuss, such as an invitation to lecture at the University of Prishtina, Florit said. But on his final visit, the professor brought up the Tolaj case, upon which Florit said he ejected the man and submitted a report to Bamieh the next day.

Florit sent a copy of the statement to Prishtina Insight, which is consistent with his version of events. But Bamieh contents that Florit drafted it only upon confronting the judge about the mentions of him on the wiretaps. Florit contends he did it on his own initiative.

What EULEX did and didn’t do

According to an internal report obtained by Prishtina Insight, EULEX began taking the corruption allegations seriously in May 2013 after the mission’s intelligence unit encountered evidence that Florit and a prosecutor had accepted bribes. Prishtina Insight is not naming the prosecutor, whom the newspaper has been unable to contact directly for an opportunity to respond directly to the allegations.

The reports by the intelligence unit triggered a formal internal investigation. That probe did conclude that there mostly likely had been an effort to bribe Florit and the prosecutor, but uncovered no evidence that these efforts were successful, suggesting that the suspect wiretaps could be explained by an effort of lawyers to defraud clients or a deliberate effort to mislead investigators.

Investigators also looked into Florit’s bank accounts and found no irregular transactions, but noted “this can be investigated better by a prosecutor in a criminal investigation.”

“There are currently no grounds for the suspicions of bribery of EULEX staff,” the investigators wrote.

Still, the internal investigation did not exclude the possibility that the bribery had occurred, and recommended that an independent prosecutor be appointed to investigation the allegations further – which EULEX says it has done.

The most damning part of the investigation, however, is related to how the mission handled Bamieh’s initial complaints, particularly a memo she sent to Silvio Bonfigli, the head of the executive division. “As of this date, the memo did not lead to any actions within the Mission,” investigators wrote, noting that Bamieh had also notified the then Deputy Head of Mission, Andy Sparks, and the Head of Mission, Xavier Marnhac, about her suspicions.

A relevant document also mysteriously vanished, which investigators found troubling: “The fact that an important document can disappear emphasizes the need for an open and transparent investigation. It is important that the Mission addresses this issue.”

The internal investigation did not conclude there had been a cover up, as Bamieh has alleged, but does lend credibility to the claim. “The fact is, people did not want to believe this. I did not want to believe it. I knew that people, even in the face of the intercepts, would say, ‘Ho ho ho, this is too far-fetched.’

Asked about the initial response to Bamieh’s complaints, EULEX suggested that the process simply took time. “Investigations are not always linear. It is a complex case where various different elements had to be brought together before an investigation could be formally opened,” said EULEX spokesperson Dragana Nikolic-Solomon.

Prosecutor ‘didn’t plan to shame EULEX’

When EULEX suspended Bamieh on October 23, the prosecutor was already on her way out – and not happy about it. Bamieh wasn’t offered a position in the newly-downsized EU rule of law mission, and her appeal – on the grounds of being unfairly evaluated during the rehiring process – was rejected.

Bamieh said that Novotna, about whom she raised suspicions about in the Tolaj case, was part of the evaluation process and rated her poorly. Evidence for this is hardly compelling: an evaluation sheet that shows Bamieh ranked 21 out 26 on a list of prosecutors but shows no indication of who was doing the evaluating.

EULEX has not said if Novotna was part of the evaluation process, but noted that the selection process was competitive, with 17 candidates for four positions.

Bamieh, for her part, sees EULEX’s ultimate decision not to rehire her and her recent suspension as the coda in a pattern of retaliation she alleges occurred after she began making accusations in 2012. The decision to speak out, Bamieh said, led to isolation at the Kosovo Special Prosecution Office, and petty investigations into issues like illegal parking and having an intern. She has also made allegations that she was treated as she was, in part, because she is a woman and from an ethnic minority.

Bamieh insisted that despite her grievances, she planned to go quietly, though her complaints would eventually have come out in a lawsuit.

“It was never my plan to publicly embarrass EULEX,” Bamieh said. “I only did this because I was suspended.

“I’m 55 years old, I don’t need to work. I could just go and happily retire to my garden and stay with my family. But I’m not going to let it happen unjustly.”

With reporting from Valerie Hopkins.

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Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.