Human rights watchdog the Albania Helsinki Committee criticised the arrests of around 200 protesters for participating in “illegal gatherings” across the country last week against fuel and food price increases.

Albanian Police Criticised for Large-Scale Arrests at Protests

Protesters clash with police during a protest against the demolition of National Theatre in Tirana, May 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/Malton Dibra

A report published by human rights organisation the Albania Helsinki Committee on Friday criticised the arrests of large numbers of protesters last week, saying they were not in line with Albanian law or international practices.

Around 200 people were arrested and prosecuted for holding “illegal gatherings” during last week’s protests against price rises in several Albania towns, but the court released a group of them on Saturday, describing their arrests as partly unlawful.

The court said that arrests on charges of “illegal gathering” and “opposition to police forces” were illegal, but endorsed charges of blocking roads. Most of the arrests took place in the capital Tirana and many of the arresting officers were in plain clothes.

The Helsinki Committee’s report argued that widespread arrests by the State Police while protesters were in the process of committing the alleged offences was “in violation of the guarantees of the right of assembly provided in Article 47 of the Constitution of the Republic of Albania and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights”.

It said that the law was broken several times in some of the arrests. Observers found that in some cases, the reason for the arrest was not written in the documents, as the law requires.

The Helsinki Committee said that there were irregularities in the police documentation of the arrests and that some detainees were held in poor conditions.

It also said that alleged injuries sustained by protesters were not registered.

“The Helsinki Committee draws attention to the non-compliance with the [Albanian] legal framework and international standards for the procedure of documenting signs of physical harm by medical staff and the failure to report to the prosecutor’s office, in those cases in which citizens were arrested in the act of wrongdoing or detained at the State Police’s security rooms, claims that these injuries were caused by the use of violence by police officers,” the report said.

The report also cited the arrest of a person with disabilities by police.

Albanians took to the streets in early March to protest at rises in the prices of petrol and food.

Last week, the price of petrol reached a new high in Albania, around two euros a litre, some 30 per cent higher than a week before. A mass protest was held last Saturday and the protest continued on Monday and Tuesday.

Protesters made public a list of demands and are waiting until Saturday for them to be met. They are asking the government for the removal of various taxes on petrol, as currently government taxes account for 53 per cent of the final cost.

They are also asking for temporary suspension of VAT on basic food items, expanding a compensation and support scheme for farmers, a proper aid package for pensioners, the disabled and families until the crisis is over, and the investigation of expenditures from the state budget and of anyone trying to manipulate the market.

Police detained several protesters during the week for “organising and participating in illegal gatherings and demonstrations”, “disrupting public order”, “disobeying the order of a police officer” and “obstructing the circulation of vehicles”.

The detentions were described as disturbing by the Ombudsman’s Office, which urged the police not to obstruct the peaceful protests.

“The Ombudsman’s Office asks the police to guarantee the right of citizens to peaceful protest and conduct themselves in accordance with the law,” it said in a statement.

Lawyers have accused the police of using undue violence against protesters and of keeping a man with disabilities in a cell for four days.

The man’s lawyer, Florenc Tafo, told BIRN that he went to the police station top see his client and took with him the man’s Health Ministry card “certifying that he is really sick, but the police did not accept it and directly detained a person who is disabled”.

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