Kosovo Police.| Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

The myth behind the ‘best police force in the region’

The new government has a tough road ahead of it when it comes to security and law enforcement, and a long list of issues to address in order to make Kosovo a safer place for all its citizens.

Politicians during the election campaign have already started to plug populist arguments on security, relishing in the adoption of the law expanding the competences of the Kosovo Security Force, KSF, and the success of policing operations tackling illegal trade in northern Kosovo earlier this year. 

However, we must not be misled when fed success stories during the electoral campaign, one of the most common being that the Kosovo Police are the ‘most reliable institution’ and ‘the most competent in the region.’

As someone who has reported on security institutions for the last 11 years, I am convinced that unless the new government initiates broad practical and legislative reforms to our security sector, our country will face a situation where public safety is tenuous, and crime linked to members of the police force will endanger the wellbeing of our society.

If we do not invest in the transformation of our country’s security services, from investments in adequate training and equipment to the development of competent investigation and disciplinary bodies to keep them accountable, then crime will continue to cause harm to the independence of our law enforcement bodies and the safety of members of society.

The ‘best police force in the region’ 

Kosovo Police was reported as being perceived by the public as one of the most reliable institutions in the country, but this camouflages reality. According to BIRN’s sources, officials working in the police’s public relations department have succeeded in covering up a number of minor corruption scandals of ordinary police officers, helping to reinforce this false perception of trust.

Data from the Kosovo Police Inspectorate, KPI, revealed that more than 100 officials have been investigated for corruption in the last year. While politicians celebrate the ‘most competent police force in the region,’ people in Kosovo cannot forget other key events involving the Kosovo Police during this administration. 

This police force should also be remembered for the human rights abuses incurred while enforcing the illegal deportation of six Turkish citizens last year, to name just one of the most egregious law enforcement responses conducted in recent years.

Holding signs stating “Free our teachers” and “Their students are making Kosovo,” students and teachers from the Mehmet Akif Colleges protested the arrest and deportation of five Turkish teachers from Kosovo. Five employees of Mehmet Akif Colleges, allegedly connected to Fethullah Gulen’s movement, and a sixth Turkish national were arrested and then deported from Kosovo. Their residence permits were revoked by the Ministry of Internal Affairs on the basis that they pose a threat to national security. The school board suspects that they are still in Kosovo however, and are demanding their release.| Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

No less than 22 police officers and superiors have been implicated in this case. However, the Kosovo Police have not yet offered a public apology to the families and victims of this unlawful deportation. In truth, unlawful action such as this endangers our national security, exposing the fact that our police are subject to influence from foreign countries and the political agendas of certain leaders, rather than the citizens of Kosovo.

A police commander in the Municipality of Ferizaj, who was accused of professional misconduct and failing to report criminal offenses he was aware of, was promoted even after the Supreme Court declared in May that the Court of Appeal had made mistakes in the application of the law during his trial. 

There are several other senior police officers who are also currently under investigation for corruption and human rights abuses. In 2018, the new chief of police, Rashit Qalaj, allocated such senior police officials, who have alleged links to criminal groups and allegations of corruption, to commanding positions within the force, without providing adequate justification for the repositioning, choosing to accommodate them rather than suspending them in the face of these allegations. 

It is no secret that smugglers from northern Kosovo have reported money being handed over to Kosovo police to facilitate criminal action, and that part of that money made its way to the command in Prishtina.

Investigating economic crimes

From the outside looking in, it appears that the elite policing unit involved in the fight against corruption, namely the Directorate for Investigation of Economic Crimes, is barely functioning. Perhaps the public would have some trust in them if they had actually issued decisions or completed successful investigations, but throughout the years, the units have failed to bring a single concrete result when investigating corrupt authorities.

With the help of the people the commissioning these investigations, criminal reports that are initially dismissed by the prosecution, and information that BIRN has received from businesses in the country has confirmed that many are under the protection of ‘big fish.’ 

These units charged with investigating economic crimes sideline investigations into major corruption scandals and instead deal with secondary issues of their mandate, and a change in priorities is one of the biggest issues to be tackled.

The misdeeds of the Directorate for Investigation of Economic Crimes in the Kosovo Police are often exposed. Aside from the fact that most of its employees and superiors were dismissed or redeployed at the decision of the new police director, who came into power in August 2018, reports from the Kosovo Police Inspectorate published following his appointment show that the unit is facing problems with confidentiality and information leaks, with officials reportedly using criminal reports to blackmail or coerce people.

Fighting drugs

The outgoing government’s policies on fighting drug trafficking have reversed many of the successes of previous administrations, and it is fundamental that the new government rectify these mistakes. 

During Thaci’s second tenure between 2011 and 2014, as well as the Mustafa government from 2014 to 2017, the police were able to crack down on large drug trafficking rings, destroying large transport networks that resulted in the prevention of the use of drugs in Kosovo with almost immediate effect.

Due to a shortage in the market, drug prices increased exponentially, reducing sale and consumption. Haradinaj’s government strategy shifted the approach of investigations. Anti-drug investigators were forced to redirect their assignments and focus police resources on the struggle against small dealers.

This has enabled safe transport networks for the large-scale smugglers to re-open, consequently lowering the price of narcotics in the country, while increasing the number of people arrested for the distribution of small amounts of drugs.

Redesigning the priorities of the Kosovo Police Anti-Drug Units and delegating the investigation of minor narcotics cases to regional directorates is a crucial step for the new government to take in order to reduce drug trafficking in Kosovo. 

Violence against women

Widespread public debate concerning violence against women and frequent institutional scandals revealed deficiencies in the functioning of the police and prosecution, both of whom have failed consistently over the last decade to respond to cases of women reporting domestic violence in a timely manner, or when they do, fail to provide an effective response.

| Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

In several high-profiles cases where women were murdered by their family members, it was discovered that police had already been made aware of the danger these women were exposed to before their murders took place. 

In addition, as with the case of Valbona Nrecaj, who was murdered by her cousin in 2018, the police propaganda machine was hired to tell us that the reaction was fair. However, the investigation by the Kosovo Police Inspectorate that followed discovered that police officers were not doing their job properly.  Nrecaj sought help by coming to the police station in Gjakova five hours prior to her murder, alerting them that her former husband was sending threatening messages. The police failed to locate Nrecaj before the murders took place.

Issues related to the protection of people in Kosovo do not stop with women. Other marginalized communities in Kosovo are subject to poor treatment from police officers – in Novermber 2018, a member of the LGBTI community was subject to verbal homophobic abuse when attempting to report a crime, and according to the KPI, the police did not start an investigation based on the person’s testimony. Five police officers were suspended in relation to the case.  

The fight against violent extremism and terrorism

Having a large number of citizens per capita participating in wars in Syria and Iraq – with over 200 men, women and children returned – Kosovo as a country has been a test subject useful for the international community to discover whether a society can succeed in de-radicalizing ISIS fighters and their families.

Data gathered from the field shows that the country is not ready to meet its goal of re-educating and assisting returnees when building their new lives. Part of that failure is down to some easily solvable problems. For example, municipalities did not hire social workers or psychologists to deal with the practical and psychological needs of these people.

A Kosovan Police officer guards the courtroom during the initial hearing of the group of ethnic Albanians charged for conspiring to commit terrorist acts at the Palace of Justice in capital Pristina on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Four ethnic Albanian Muslims pleaded not guilty to charges made by an international prosecutor that they belonged to a terrorist group plotting attacks and were linked to Islamic State militants. A fifth, accused of assaulting two American missionaries pleaded guilty to the charges. The group of five men has been in detention since Nov. 2013 after a sting operation by the police during which they were caught buying weapons police say were to be used in an attack. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

With law enforcement units mainly trained in the US, Kosovo has built good capacities for identifying certain groups that support radical ideas. The Kosovo Intelligence Agency, KIA, and the police have managed to create a network of people who are capable of detecting plans and attempts to join foreign wars, but have failed to achieve the same level of success administering proper treatment for those returning from these wars.

Out of all the cases taken on so far, the KIA was, in only one case, able to identify recruiters and funders of some who went to Syria. It remains a mystery who recruited and supported the departure of all other citizens.

The free movement of recruiters for foriegn conflicts poses a permanent risk to society, particularly taking into consideration that the country does not have a social or educational care system that is prepared to prevent extremism.

Past strategies for preventing violent extremism and for combating terrorism are largely unimplemented, creating huge gaps in prevention and resocialization.

Institutions such as local municipalities, the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology have neglected their responsibilities both in terms of caring for returnees and preventing terrorism.

The (non) use of technology

Kosovo is among the countries with the smallest number of security cameras installed in public areas that are supervised by the emergency services.

Consequently, crime in public areas is relatively high, and in the absence of security cameras, police investigators are forced to take assistance from private companies that oversee private housing and business premises in order to obtain surveillance footage that are often unusable due to the poor quality of the equipment.

The Kosovo Police has little access to modern information technology. Out of date computers and poor police databases make data verification and communication difficult. Proper surveillance technology is not even used to manage traffic. Kosovo’s highways and roads have no radars to measure the speed of vehicles. Road deaths in Kosovo reached more than 100 people per year in the last decade.

These radars are not even mounted on police vehicles that are able to record the speed of the vehicles on the move, and crossroads in the country are not equipped with radars and cameras to record vehicles driving through red lights.

Investments in technology are indispensable to the police in order to improve the quality of investigations and the proper functioning of law enforcement bodies in Kosovo.

Illustration for Prishtina Insight: Jete Dobranja/Trembelat.

In 1999 when the Kosovo Police were working under the supervision of UNMIK, they were equipped with video cameras filming statements made by both victims and witnesses.

Nowadays, the Kosovo Police, with the exception of the counterterrorism unit, does not use video cameras to conduct interviews. In the absence of equipment, interviews are written manually or on a computer and are then hand-signed.

One might say that this is not a problem, yet court records reveal that many cases are thrown out as a result of witnesses and suspects changing their statements throughout the trial. 

Security authorities, especially the police, face multiple communication problems. In the absence of police radios, officers are allowed to use their telephones as a means of communication with each other. Absence of radio communication is a huge problem particularly in northern Kosovo, where police are consequently unable to communicate as neither IPKO nor VALA mobile networks are able to operate. 

These issues are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to challenges in Kosovo’s law enforcement and security services. But without the most basic of problems solved, Kosovo’s citizens will continue to face the threat of violation of their most basic rights by one of the ‘most trusted’ institutions in the country, and the overall security of the nation will continue to weaken if the same mistakes are repeated.

Note: This is part of a series of articles delivering solutions to Kosovo’s biggest problems. These analyses are compiled by our team of internal and external experts and are being written with the aim of feeding political parties’ programs with ideas on how to resolve these problems. Kosovo citizens deserve to hear more than just noise, confusion and senseless prognosis by civil society and the media, hence we are providing ideas for all those who are seriously competing in the October 6 parliamentary elections.

13 September 2019 - 15:21

Kreshnik Gashi

13/09/2019 - 15:21

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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.