Has EU’s anti-corruption mission been corrupted itself?

Allegations of bribery have shaken the European Union's rule of law mission in Kosovo, further diminishing the public trust in the organization meant to curb widespread graft in the country – not contribute to it.

Visar Kryeziu/AP
Suspended EULEX prosecutor Maria Bamieh shows a document she claims proves the mission sidelined her for whistleblowing about alleged corruption within the organization.

A European Union legal team sent to Kosovo to fight the country’s rampant corruption may have fallen victim to it itself.

The EU's rule of law mission in Kosovo, established to help curb widespread graft and crime, is facing allegations that have further dissolved the Kosovar public's trust in the already unpopular organization.

EULEX, as the mission is known, stands accused that one of its international judges took a bribe to acquit a defendant – and that the organization waited a year to investigate the charge. For many in this young Balkan nation, this confirms suspicions that EULEX has become part of the problem it was supposed to help fix.

The allegations of bribery have not been proven, but the episode “has renewed this debate … about the type of justice that international organizations can deliver” in Kosovo, says Besa Shahini, a senior analyst for the European Stability Initiative in Pristina. “As trust in EULEX is continuously eroding, this scandal might just be the last straw to fully shatter it.”

The EU established EULEX in 2008, the year Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia nearly a decade after NATO intervened in a conflict between the two countries. It sent international judges and prosecutors to try important cases of corruption, organized crime, and war crimes and to help build a reliable police force and legal institutions. 

But many in Kosovo felt the justice mission, which employees about 1,600 local and international staff, declined to pursue some cases against important figures for political reasons.

Bribery allegations

The latest scandal, unveiled by a local newspaper, exploded into public view at the end of October. But the story begins in 2012, when Maria Bamieh, a British prosecutor working for EULEX, was investigating a corruption case against a Kosovo government official. She tapped his mobile phone and discovered his associates were discussing meeting with an EULEX judge in attempt to get the case dropped. In a transcript of the calls, the official obliquely discusses plans to bribe the judge. Ms. Bamieh says another prosecutor, also discussed in the tapped calls, tried to persuade her to drop the case.

Bamieh alerted her superiors, but there was no investigation. The following year, she came across allegations that the same judge, Francesco Florit, had accepted a bribe of around 300,000 euros ($376,000) from three defendants in exchange for acquitting them. The men were tried for planting a bomb in a Pristina cafe in 2007. Yet only one of the defendants was acquitted, and family members of the two convicted complain the judge stiffed them.

Bamieh says she was punished by superiors after her complaint and eventually forced out of her job. Her contract was not renewed this fall when EULEX downsized.

“I believe EULEX has an important role to play in Kosovo, but [it must be] an open, transparent EULEX, which is … accountable for all its actions,” she said in an interview.

Mr. Florit, who is Italian, strongly denies the bribery accusations. He says the man recorded talking about him came to his office several times to discuss other matters and that he threw him out as soon as the man mentioned the case.

He also points out that those convicted in the bombing case, who will spend the rest of their lives in prison, have a motive to say they bribed him.

“Their only expectation to get out of jail is that the corruption of the judge is proven,” he said by phone from Udine, Italy, where he now lives. “I don’t have anything to hide,” he said, adding that he is eager to cooperate with any investigation to clear his name, including by turning over his bank account records.

New investigation

Florit cooperated with the investigation begun by EULEX in 2013, a year after the allegations surfaced. Last week the EU appointed a legal expert to conduct an independent inquiry.

Yet any investigation now, years after the alleged crime, is unlikely to either verify the allegations or remove all suspicion of corruption.

“If EULEX had investigated in 2012 ... there would be tons of evidence now against them. But they did nothing,” Bamieh says.

Florit says his reputation and career have been damaged beyond repair, and that even a probe concluding there was no corruption will not remove the association of bribery allegations with his name.

An internal EULEX document detailing the 2013 investigation into accusations of corruption against three EULEX employees, including the two Bamieh named, concludes there is no merit to the accusations against Florit and two others. It recommends, however, that lawyers who allegedly raised money for bribes should be investigated. The report notes it was possible the lawyers collected money they said was for a bribe but pocketed it instead.

The investigation also found that Bamieh's report detailing her allegations was missing from EULEX's files, supporting her claim of a cover-up.

EULEX officials say the accusations are taken seriously. When asked why an investigation was not begun in 2012, an EULEX spokeswoman said “it is a complex case where various different elements had to be brought together before an investigation could be formally opened.”

Whatever the result of the EU's independent probe, the fallout from the scandal could impede EULEX's ability to bring cases if a lack of trust hampers witness cooperation. The justice mission is already winding down its operations in Kosovo – it stopped accepting new cases this year and is due to end in 2016.

Yet the scandal's effect could extend further, says Ms. Shahini, to the special tribunal to be established next year. It will try alleged war crimes committed by Kosovo's guerrilla forces during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s.

“It has set the specialized court up for failure, before it has even been set up,” she says.

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