While thousands of Albanians wait for decades to legalize their homes and others end up in jail for “illegally“ building chicken coops and opening up window sills in their own properties, the Government issues arbitrary decrees that allow renowned businessmen linked to politics that have abused their building permits, to buy back their ill-gotten gains without any kind of criminal repercussions, in this way going back also on their word that the confiscated properties would be used for the homeless.
Author: Leonora Sula
The house of Fiqiri Sefa in Lapraka, Tirana, is a modest one-story residence surrounded by a well-maintained garden, where seasonal crops are likely to be planted. Having arrived in Tirana in the 1980s, initially, his family settled in the village of Bërxullë within the capital.
“In March ’93, I came here to Lapraka and started building the house myself,” says the 48-year-old who spent 20 years of his life abroad. “I have always worked as a driver in Albania,” he adds.
The story of Fiqiri Sefa is one that thousands of Albanians are familiar with, as a significant part of it has been experienced by many during the process of forming the democratic state of Albania. Although his house was built at a time when our country hardly recognized building permits, legalization, etc., even after 30 years, his family does not have a document to prove ownership of the residence, despite his continuous efforts.
“I registered the property from the beginning, we applied for the legalization permits, and we were told to come today, come tomorrow,” he says, adding that the necessary measurements of the property were conducted. “We waited because they said they would bring them to us, but they never did. Later, the New Ring Road was built, and the whole process came to a complete halt,” Mr. Sefa further explains, stating that the ownership certificate never came out.
“The governments changed, they came and lied, and they asked for a lot of money. To obtain a legalization permit, it would cost 7 to 8 thousand euros,” he says, explaining that at that time he didn’t have the means to pay such a high amount. Faced with this situation, the 48-year-old lost hope of ever obtaining the certificate that would prove his family’s ownership of the property they had built and lived in for 30 years.
“I’m no longer interested. They would come, and even two years ago, they came and measured my house, telling me to keep my phone open so they could contact me when it was time to make the payment. But they never took any action,” he says, adding that he has no information as to why the legalization process has not been possible. The only institution the 48-year-old has approached to seek information is the Cadastre.
“They told me to wait, that they would come to measure the houses, that we were in the process,” he says, hinting at corruption within this institution, as according to him, some people asked for money or you had to know someone influential in order to get their assistance.
“I have all the receipts from when we sent the letters for the legalization process. The house is in my father’s name, Dervish Sefa. I haven’t received any response for two years since the construction of the New Ring Road, which completely blocked the process. They even said, ‘Now you are out of the game,'” he concludes.
However, Fiqiri Sefa’s family is not the only one facing this issue. In our country, there are thousands of citizens who suffer from this problem. According to the magazine Monitor, in an article from 2021, there were 320,000 properties whose owners had completed self-declaration in an attempt to legalize them. Out of these, only 210,000 were legalized, while 110,000 properties remained in the process, with 60,000 to 70,000 of them deemed un-legalizable.
The construction double standards, favoring businessmen, and prosecuting citizens.
In September 2022, the Albanian Government approved a Decision of the Council of Ministers regarding the rules and procedures for the expropriation for the public interest of illegally constructed buildings intended for profit. In simple terms, construction businessmen who had built beyond what their permits allowed would have their construction seized and would be given the opportunity to purchase the space at a value not lower than the market price, as well as pay a fine.
However, this treatment is not the same for ordinary citizens who have ended up in court according to the provisions of the current penal code. According to Article 199 of the Penal Code, stipulates that “Illegal construction of a building on one’s own land is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to one year. But this act, when committed on public or state land or on someone else’s land, is punishable by imprisonment from one to five years. And if this act has caused serious consequences or was done for profit purposes, it is punishable by imprisonment from three to eight years.”
And the cases of citizens who have been prosecuted and sentenced are not few. According to this Council of Ministers’ Decision, the confiscated constructions can be transferred with the right of preemption to the developing entity of the property or any authorized entity by them, at a value not less than the market price, and the secured funds are used for expropriation, special treatment, or compensation in order to carry out public works.
According to the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Republic, from 2012 until the first 9 months of 2022, the number of citizens indicted for illegal construction is 8,859. Out of these citizens, 5,585 have been sentenced according to the provisions of Article 199 of the penal code, while the remaining have been acquitted.
Cases of criminal prosecution, even against elderly individuals, due to minor constructions such as a small chicken coop, have not been absent. One such case is that of an 82-year-old woman from Narta, Vlora, which gained public attention when she faced the black robes of the courts due to the reconstruction of a small chicken coop.
Albanian invention, Council of Ministers’ decision on the law, experts: The only institution that can carry out seizures is the courts.
“Besides criminal liability, all individuals who commit this type of administrative or criminal offense may face criminal proceedings,” says lawyer Saimir Visha, adding that Albania has substantive law where any unauthorized construction by competent authorities is considered a criminal act.
“After the criminal act is committed, seizures, confiscations, or demolitions can take place,” says Mr. Visha, adding that in parallel, we are the only country in the world where, in addition to the law, we also have a regulatory act because the Council of Ministers’ decision, despite having the force of law, is a sub-legal act, and as long as we have the law, it prevails over the decision. “But as the miracles that happen here currently, we have issued a Council of Ministers’ decision, and this decision should only be annulled by the Constitutional Court because the law on unauthorized constructions exists,” he concludes.
According to former prosecutor Eugen Beci, we are dealing with parallelism because the criminal case is independent of the administrative case. “The only institution in Albania that deals with seizures and confiscations is the court. The government cannot do it except in cases related to terrorist acts,” he says. Former prosecutor Beci states that for someone who has conducted unauthorized construction, the criminal case should come first, followed by the administrative case.
For the former representative of the prosecution, the government’s justification that the justice system is not doing its job properly is not valid, saying that criminal complaints should have been filed. “It would have been more correct, lawful, and democratic. The government cannot say that since the judiciary is not working properly, I am replacing it. That doesn’t make sense,” he says.
But is there a way to escape criminal prosecution, the possibility given to builders to purchase part of the unauthorized construction?
Lawyer Ledio Braho states, “No, it is not a way to escape. Article 52 of Law No. 107/2014 ‘On Territorial Planning and Development,’ as amended, in its first paragraph, provides, among other things, that ‘Under this law, the following violations, regardless of whether they constitute a criminal offense, constitute administrative violations and are subject to penalties.'” He adds that confiscation or the right of preemption granted to violators of the law is complementary to criminal proceedings.
Although multi-story unauthorized constructions were identified in the heart of the Albanian capital, no official responsible for stopping these constructions has faced criminal proceedings. Braho states that it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy to take disciplinary measures against responsible officials and local inspectors under its jurisdiction, and if problems with elements of criminal offenses are identified, criminal complaints must also be filed.
Government officials are surprised by the unauthorized constructions in the capital, but the prosecutor’s office has only opened a single case.
“This is the most blatant symbolic example of the law’s violation. 2 underground floors and 7 above-ground floors, a 9-story construction without any permits. How this happened is a mystery to us,” said Belinda Balluku, the Minister of Infrastructure and Energy, in September 2022, on the first day of the government’s operation to seize illegal spaces. The minister’s statement, made in Farka, surprised everyone with her remarks about the mystery surrounding the construction of this palace-like building. It is unimaginable for an average Albanian to accept that state authorities have not noticed it, nor the expression that they turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. However, what can be accepted logically is that they willingly turned a blind eye.
When officially asked about the criminal complaints made to the prosecutor’s office, the Tirana Municipal Territorial Inspectorate (IMT) states that this institution carries out its legal duties and responsibilities based on Law No. 9780, dated July 16, 2007, “On Inspection and Protection of Territory from Unauthorized Constructions” (amended), Council of Ministers’ Decision No. 408, dated May 13, 2015, “On the Approval of the Regulation for Territory Development,” Law No. 107/2014, dated July 31, 2014, “On Planning and Development of Territory” (amended), Council of Ministers’ Decision No. 894, dated November 4, 2015, “On the Unification of Territory Control Procedures by the National Inspectorate of Territorial Defense and Local Inspectorate of Territorial Defense.”
“As the competent authority for identifying and punishing entities that do not comply with the current legislation in the field of construction, we inform you that we have identified every illegal object, and measures have been taken against them,” the IMT officially states to ACQJ. But the truth is quite different. The Tirana Municipal Territorial Inspectorate (IMT) not only failed to fulfill its duty to identify unauthorized constructions in the capital but also turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to them.
When officially asked, the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office states that in 2022, only one report related to unauthorized construction has been filed by the Municipality of Tirana and the IMT. However, there are also decisions from the IMT, which have confiscated, based on the Council of Ministers’ approved decision, 71,989 square meters of constructed and under-construction towers and buildings in the capital.
In a report provided to ACQJ, the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office states that in the last 10 years, they have registered 2,436 criminal proceedings for violations of Article 199/a of the Penal Code, out of which 1,046 have been sent for trial.
Meanwhile, the IMT informs that from 2016 to 2022, it has made 1,241 demolition decisions, 997 fine-imposing decisions, and carried out 3,528 demolitions of structures.