Author: Merxhan Daci
Gropa-Biza-Martanesh Mountain is a protected natural area, but despite this, it has often become a “favorite place” for logging activities. There have been many such cases and only in one of them, registered on July 18, 2019, the damage caused by logging was estimated at 736,000 ALL.
The offender was caught red-handed by the State Inspectorate of Environment, Forestry and Tourism last summer and fined, but no criminal charges were registered for the case.
Deforestation accounts for about 60% of environmental crimes in Albania.
In the last five years, from 2015-2019, a total of 1,153 proceedings for environmental crimes have been registered in Albania. However, only 285 people have been convicted.
The low level of punishment for environmental crimes, according to experts, is related to the lack or neglect of monitoring and low sentencing, especially for crimes that occupy the largest part.
The most common environmental crimes in Albania
The annual reports of the General Prosecutor’s Office on the State of Crime in the country, analyzed by Faktoje, show that about 60% of the proceedings registered with the competent authorities are for deforestation.
Air pollution, forest fires and illegal fishing are among the other environmental crimes.
Illegal logging of ornamental and fruit trees in Albania is at high levels
Number of proceedings and cases pending
Over the past five years, the number of registered cases for environmental crime has increased significantly. This, except in 2016, when compared to a year ago the number of proceedings fell.
From 2016-2019 the number of proceedings has been increasing.
In total, 1153 proceedings were registered during this 5-year period.
However, if we look at how many of the proceedings have gone to court, compared to the registered proceedings, the number is small.
In total, in 5 years, the number of proceedings that have gone to court is 260. So only 22.5% of the registered proceedings have gone to trial.
Defendants, court envoys and convicts
In total, 648 people have been registered as defendants in environmental crimes in Albania in the last five years.
Of these defendants, 446 have gone to court. In other words, nearly 69% of the total number of defendants have gone to court.
A total of 285 people have been convicted of environmental crimes over the past five years. So 64% of those who have gone to court have been convicted.
Why is the penalty low?
Impunity for environmental crimes has been acknowledged several times by the Tourism and Environment Minister Blendi Klosi.
“Municipalities irresponsibly throw garbage near the river. This is an environmental crime; the criminal code requires it to be sentenced to 1-7 years. Is anyone being punished today? No. This environmental crime should not be tolerated “, said Blendi Klosi, taking this example at the conference on Environmental Crime in February this year.
Xhavit Shala, a lecturer at the Security Academy, said at the same conference on environmental crime that the chain of reporting institutions needs to be strengthened. “Increase the penalties for the perpetrators of criminal offenses. This is very important, the current practice of malfunctioning police-prosecutor-court chain needs to be corrected “, he said.
Luan Mema, an environmental crime expert, told Faktoje that one of the main reasons why there is low punishment is the lack of evidence.
“Some of the environmental crimes leave little or no trace or even hide the evidence, so this makes the case difficult in court,” Mema said.
The OSCE Ambassador to Albania, Bernd Borchardt, invited to the Conference on Environmental Crime in 2018, said that the lack of evidence and investigations has led to low penalization of criminals.
“This small number of reported cases shows that there was not enough evidence and above all there was not enough investigation. Therefore, there is a need to strengthen the entire chain of inspectorates-police-prosecutors-courts and that this is an issue on which the work of this inter-institutional working group should be focused”, said Borchardt.
Two years later, “Faktoje” asked Ambassador Borchardt if the institution he represents sees an increase in punishment for environmental crimes in Albania.
“In two years, the Presence has witnessed significant changes in the legislative and institutional aspect.
In the legislative aspect, the amendment of the criminal code in October 2019 has criminalized many violations that were once only administrative violations. The impact can be read from the annual report of the General Prosecutor’s Office for 2019. Environmental crimes account for 0.87% of total crimes, a small increase from 0.79% in 2018. So, we see an increase in prosecuted crimes.
The institutional change refers to the decision of the Council of Ministers in December 2019 on the transfer of competencies related to environmental crimes to the Ministry of Interior and the Albanian State Police. That fact must be taken into account, “said Borchardt for Faktoje.
The OSCE Ambassador to Albania added that now these changes will have to be reflected in the results. To achieve this, he said, cooperation between government agencies, technical expertise for municipalities, and increased awareness among citizens, NGOs, the media and academia are important.
Changes in legislation and monitoring structures
At the end of 2019, there were some changes regarding environmental articles in the criminal code.
Punishment measures have increased where for some offenses you can be imprisoned for 15-20 years.
However, although deforestation accounts for about 60% of environmental crimes in Albania, the penalties for this crime have not increased but have remained from a fine, up to one year in prison.
Luan Mema, an environmental crime expert, thinks that these legal changes will affect the fight against environmental crime.
“The new changes have come closer to the environment in Albania and I think they will provide an innovation in this regard,” Mema told Faktoje.
With regard to the changes in the structures that follow the environmental crime, the Ministry of Interior has received competencies in environmental protection.
IKMT will no longer be the National Inspectorate of Territorial Protection, but will be the National Inspectorate of Environment and Territory. IKMT actions will be carried out in cooperation with local police structures.
IKMT will expand the scope of its activity and functions, having in its competence not only the protection of the territory, but also the protection of the environment, mainly water, land and forests, with emphasis on forests.
According to Interior Minister Lleshaj, this change aims to increase the preventive power of institutions in protecting the environment of the country.
This article is published within the framework of the project “Facts and the Environment”, implemented by the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism and Faktoje, in the framework of the project “Towards Improving Labor Relations and Professionalism in the Albanian Media” supported by the European Union, implemented by the Albanian Media Institute and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The sole responsibility for the content of this article lies with the author and under no circumstances can it be considered that it reflects the position of the European Union”.