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‘EU foreign missions open to abuse, bribery, financial crime’ – Kosovo prosecutor

The EU’s biggest foreign crisis mission, expected to tackle corruption in troubled Kosovo, has itself become a target of bribe-taking allegations. Maria Bamieh, the prosecutor who shed light on the crimes within the EULEX program, is on SophieCo today, to talk about who’s to blame and why the EU still hasn’t properly investigated her revelations.

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Sophie Shevarnadze:Prosecutor, member of the EU Rule of Law Mission to Kosovo Maria Bamieh. Welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, you accused top officials who were part of the EULEX mission in Kosovo of corruption and taking bribes. Did you confront them right away?

Maria Bamieh: No, I didn’t. I confronted one of them in 2012 as I was reporting the evidence that I’ve found to the Head of Justice. Myself and my direct manager, line manager both went to see him as a result of the interceptions that I came by innocently, and one of the perpetrators was in his room and I was made to confront her directly. The main perpetrator, Judge Florit (former chairman of EULEX’ Assembly of Judges - RT), I didn’t confront directly. I thought EULEX were investigating the matter, but I subsequently found out they weren’t, but recently on KTV in Kosovo I confronted the other perpetrator directly.

SS:But you voiced your corruption concerns back in 2012. Why is it only getting attention now?

MB: It’s only getting attention now because following my report of corruption I suffered victimisation by one of the persons involved who continued to be my second line manager. Then it came to the point where I was being interviewed for my own position and she was sitting on the panel. And with the greatest of respect, if she was innocent she would have hated me, and if she was guilty she would have hated me. So she shouldn’t have been on the panel at all. I objected, and then there was a second selection exercise where two of senior colleagues who worked closely to her were on the panel. Now, on this panel some of the candidates apart from myself were very strong candidates with tons of prosecution experience, but then they just selected a few friends which they had gone on holidays with, which they had gone to visit the Pope with, just a week before my interview. And I was not selected. There were some hard-hitting American DAs who had applied – they were not selected, it was only the friends. I accepted that, I was ready to go, and then they came and frog-marched me out of the building as if I were a criminal, with two security staff, and said that I committed an act of gross misconduct. I hadn’t done anything. Then I discovered they were alleging that I leaked documents to a newspaper, which I had never done: the journalist has confirmed to everybody that I just never was his source. Furthermore, in EULEX documents are being leaked on a daily basis that had nothing to do with me. So there’s obviously someone within EULEX who’s leaking information, but they just jumped to a conclusion that it was me, without a shred of evidence. Kosovo is a small place and everybody talks, everybody would have thought that I’ve done something terribly wrong, and the only way I could explain my position was by going public about what had happened within EULEX. It was not done out of revenge, it was not done out of maliciousness, it was done to protect my own reputation.

SS:But back then, when you actually said that there was something wrong, did you know why the case wasn’t moving along, or did you perhaps not realize?

MB: Well, no, I didn’t know that the case was not moving along. I drafted my indictment in that case in the firm belief that there was an internal investigation going on. My first line manager believed that they were investigating. It was only till some time later that I realized nothing had been done about the first case. And then, when I discovered the bribes that the family were claiming that bribes had been paid to this judge, my officers went to see head of mission, and initially he refused to investigate. Then my two police officers, one from America, one from Belgium, told them in no uncertain terms that it would look bad for EULEX if they did not investigate, so in 2013 they opened preliminary investigation into the judge, half-heartedly, because then the judge was under investigation by a task force. But the line managers invited him in for a quiet chat – I don’t know why they needed to speak to him while they were investigating him, the investigated should’ve only been spoken to by the investigating officers – and then when I looked on the act in the Kosovo programme, he quite clearly had been given confidential investigation documents. I could not believe that they had passed this information to him.

SS:Tell me something – were highly placed EU officials covering the case? How far up did that go?

MB: I think this scandal goes all the way to the Civilian Commander’s Office. Because there is no way…

SS:Hm. And what’s in it for them?

MB: Oh no, I don’t say that the Civilian Commander was corrupt. The hiding of the complaint and the failure to deal with it goes up to the Civilian Commander’s Office. In relation to the officials, I believe that there was a scam that just didn’t involve my two cases, but involved a number of cases under investigation whereby they were just milking suspects and defendants for money for manipulating the judicial process.

SS:But why didn’t you take your concerns to Brussels straight away, or at least now, instead of going to the press?

MB: Because they wouldn’t listen.

SS:How do you know?

MB: I wrote to the Civilian Commander, I sent e-mails to Alexis Hupen, I sent e-mails to a number of people in the Civilian Commander’s Office. I believe that they just covered this up and they did not pass it in the chain of command. Although I cannot say what they did or didn’t do, it’ll be a matter for them to answer you as to what they actually did with the information I gave them.

SS:Tell me something, have you been intimidated? Has anyone tried to intimidate you?

MB: Have I been intimidated? Of course, I have! They brought a parking investigation against me. When everyone just gets a little warning on the e-mail, “Please don’t do it again”, I went through a full-scale investigation. There is evidence of people from Brussels under the influence of alcohol overturning cars, and they didn’t investigate them. There is evidence that the mayor of Pristina wrote to EULEX about an illegally parked vehicle, which happened to belong to a very senior member of staff close to the head of mission – nothing happened. But for me, I had to have a full-scale investigation when I parked outside my house, no inconvenience to anybody – it just did not make sense. Then I was attacked constantly by the second line manager I had complained against.

SS: Do you believe there are other cases of corruption other than the bribes that you witnessed?

MB: Yes, there are. I hope that this is not widespread.

SS:Do you feel the media attention to the case will help bring about justice?

MB: Well, I certainly hope that some lessons can be learned from all of this. I don’t know what the terms of reference of the new EU investigator are and whether they are wide enough to cover all the issues surrounding the conduct of high EULEX officials, but that is something that I have to wait and see.

SS:EULEX was planned to stay for two years, but it’s been in Kosovo for seven years. Now, you’ve been there all the time. Is it working?

MB: I think, having EULEX in Kosovo is important. It does create stability and it is one of the mechanisms, I hope, that will help Kosovo to develop and help the various communities living and working in Kosovo. But there is another side to EULEX, which appears to me to be a bit totalitarian in a manner which I have been treated.

SS: Like you’ve said, it does seem like EULEX is behaving like it thinks it is above the law.

MB: Absolutely.

SS:And some would argue that EULEX is now part of the problem, rather than solution in Kosovo.

MB: The problem really is that they haven’t been open and transparent, and people just don’t trust them. When it comes to their own staff, they treat them appallingly. They do not recognize the rights of staff, they preach rule of law and don’t practice rule of law. And when you behave in that manner, you lose credibility with the people, because you cannot give a message that it’s OK to hide corruption, not in Kosovo, anywhere. But you cannot give a message that people who report corruption, that you can penalize them or dismiss them, or treat them appallingly, because you believe they have no legal rights. You cannot behave like that, not in this day and age, no.

SS:Moreover, Kosovo opposition politicians, they insist that corruption has only grown under EULEX. Do you feel the same?

MB: I don’t think it’s grown and I don’t think it’s diminished. There is still tons of corruption. You have to understand, in Kosovo, it’s almost endemic in the culture. In order to get a contract, you have to pay a percentage, in order to do business with THIS person, you have to pay THAT. If you want to win a tender, you get friends to intermediate, to get a percentage or to win the tender. I mean, it’s in the Kosovo health system with the drugs, it’s everywhere you look. There is corruption in every sector of life. But the ordinary people live very poor and frugal lives. And, quite honestly, the corruption in Kosovo… EULEX being there to deal with corruption in Kosovo hasn’t improved the lives of the ordinary people.

SS:From what you’re saying, it seems to me that EULEX mission is kind of useless.

MB: Well, it’s not as effective as it could be, and really is not effective as it should be.

SS:In volatile regions like Kosovo, corruption is often part of the culture, it’s part of the mentality. So can a rule of law mission change that around?

MB: I believe, a rule of law mission can change that around, but it will not be just through prosecutions and convictions, although those will be an important part, but it would be by looking at other areas, where you encourage people to come forward and report. By making sure you have proper witness protection schemes, by making sure that people who do come forward are not penalized if they happen to work in one of the government institutions, by huge media campaigns, education in the schools and in the universities to help future generations break out of that culture. It’s the whole system change…

SS:Is it happening within the EULEX mission?

MB: I don’t believe so, but you’re welcome to ask them.

SS:But since you worked with them.

MB: Well, I work in the judicial side, I’ve seen some media campaigns, but they have a central bank, they don’t have the kind of regulation, internal regulation like we do in the UK or the US, or Germany, or France. So, a lot of corruption goes behind the scenes through the banking system. And also I don’t know what programmes, if any there are, in the schools to change the mentality of accepting corruption as the price of living in Kosovo.

SS:The EU has also missions similar to the one in Kosovo, in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Palestine, number of African countries. How big is the danger of corruption in all these schemes? You know the system from inside, that’s why I’m asking.

MB: Well, I think, the EU is open to abuse, and I’ll explain to you why. And this would apply to all the missions. They are liable to have abuses in any one of these missions, because there is no oversight and there is no accountability beyond their respective Civilian Commanders.

SS:But how come, why is there no accountability? Why is there no public oversight of those?

MB: Well. That’s the way the EU planned these missions, that’s the way they did the structure. It’s never made sense to me, that anyone can hide information. Say, a colleague of mine wrote to the Member State Committee, the permanent social committee at the EEAS, their demission came and took his letter, said: “No, no, no, internal matter, not for you to deal with, leave it with me, I’ll sort it out.” So, whilst the Member States agree the direction of the mission and the various missions carry out the direction the Member States want, the Member States do not get to hear of the day-to-day matters that occur in the various missions, and therefore matters can hidden from them and from the Parliament. There is no independent oversight that maybe could report directly to the Parliament or directly to the head of the EAS, the External Action Service. Even the ombudsman, the EU ombudsman has difficulties finding anyone to accept responsibility when issues arise. The External Action Service says ‘no assets to Council’, the Council says ‘no assets to External Action Service’, nobody provides documents to enable the ombudsman to do his job. Even basic data protection – I asked for documents they had that contain my name, which I’m entitled to by law. They didn’t respond, I’m going to have to go court to have these documents, but that’s the kind of thing that’s lacking within the structure.

SS:But also, all the money that’s being spent on these missions, I know Kosovo mission is about one billion dollars. Is it worth it, does anyone even know where it all goes? I mean, as a taxpayer are you willing to fund this?

MB: Personally, I do believe there is considerable wastage within this mission. For example, these downsizing exercises that they’ve had – they had one two years ago, they had another one this time. Everybody spends the first month sitting on interviews for their own jobs. Then they spend the next three months being on panels for interviews for other people’s job. Why that could not be done as a paper exercise based on performance, I do not know. Another example. We had a case of medics, which involved organ trafficking – very important case. I do not detract from that, but the prosecutor went to Israel so many times, to America a number of times, to Turkey, globe-trotting in order to make this case succeed. This case ended up with a conviction of a six month sentence. That is all. So value for money, the amount of they went in the case, compared to the sentence that was achieved, whereas other people within the unit, for example, myself, I’ve never taken a duty trip to gather evidence. Yeah, I’ve got sentences of 25 years, 15 years, 5 years, without having to waste money on travelling round the world to get evidence. And they should be in audit of how we investigate our cases or whether the resources are properly applied to the cases. There is just two examples of it, you sit with me for another hour - go through many more, where there is wastage within the EU.

SS:Maria Bamieh, thank you for this interview, we were talking about EU mission scandal in Kosovo. Thanks a lot for this interesting insight. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, we’ll see you next time.