The idea for this interview came to us while discussing routine police reporting. "A 51-year-old man has been arrested by the Police Authority in Fier, after it was suspected that he sexually harassed a 15-year-old girl. The police informed that the materials were passed to the Prosecutor's Office for further procedural actions ". In most cases these investigations close without fuss and paedophiles emerge unscathed from the trials or are sentenced leniently. How can we protect children from sex offenders, sometimes violent, sometimes hidden or too sophisticated? The Director of the Child Rights Centre Albania (CRCA), Altin Hazizaj has an idea. Paedophiles should be registered and kept under control after being released from prison. How will it work, how many cases are there in Albania, who is making this draft law? This is explained to us by Altin Hazizaj, who has prepared a proposal for the establishment of the register on a new draft law.
Iconstyle: How will this registry work?
Altin Hazizaj:The idea of the register is already "old" as it was proposed by CRCA Albania for the first time in 2014, based on some serious events of sexual violence against children. At that time, we submitted our request for improvements to the Criminal Code and with them the request for the establishment of the National Register of Sex Offenders. At that time, the Parliament had just passed some other changes in the Code, so it was suggested to wait. In 2016, with the opening of the National Platform for Online Safety ISIGURT.AL we faced a series of crimes against children and adolescents that were happening online, so together with some very good experts from the Law School of University of Tirana, we worked to bring a full set of proposals to the Criminal Code, including cybercrimes. After a few months, the Parliament invited us to a hearing session on these changes, but what we realised was that none of the MP’s were aware enough to contemplate the value of these changes, so they refused to submit these changes for approval.
The new elections of 2017 and the political conflict made it very difficult to communicate with the Parliament, to reach the beginning of 2020 when a series of serious events of violence and sexual exploitation of children, showed how necessary these changes were and how many children would have been protected if the Parliament had paid due attention.
I return to the question of how the National Register will function - as it is already clear - its functioning is closely linked to the Criminal Code. According to the version prepared by the best CRCA/ECPAT Albania legal experts, the Register will be managed by the National Authority of Police, which is the only authority in Albania that has the task of preventing crimes and identifying the perpetrators. The register itself is an electronic and physical database that is kept, stored, completed the information by certain persons within the Police, while the perpetrators are registered as soon as their sentence for one of the sexual crimes provided for in the Criminal Code becomes final.
When the convict is released from prison he / she has the duty to meet the Officer in charge of the Registry in the town or village where he / she lives and from that moment, for every move they are obliged to inform where they will go, who will meet, how long will they stay etc. Sex offenders are also barred from approaching children or adolescents more than 200 meters, including having a safe space from their home away from schools, kindergartens, or hospitals. What is important in the law are two other main features: the first is the obligation of every employer not to hire, but also to check if anyone within the staff of the organisation / institution he has been accused or convicted of sexual crimes against children; while the second feature concerns self-declaration and self-registration as a paedophile or sexual predator at the National Register. Today, several European countries are giving absolute priority to the prevention of sexual crimes against children, so self-declaration gives all paedophiles who have not committed crimes the opportunity to receive free psychological services, including health services.
Iconstyle: Who will draft it, who will be identified, in what way, who will use it?
Altin Hazizaj:The law has already been drafted. Given the lockdown imposed during the March-May period, all of our legal experts worked long hours to prepare the first draft of the law, and in May it was presented to a close circle of CRCA colleagues and experts and partners, who proposed improvements and additions. In September, the draft-law was publicly presented at an online Meeting attended by over 60 representatives of civil society and national institutions. For a period of 2 weeks we received several recommendations, including aspects related to compliance with the Constitution and human rights standards that such a law should meet. At this moment as we speak, the draft-law is awaiting approval by the Albanian Parliament. It has been presented as a private-member bill and I believe that if everything goes according to the forecasts, this year will find us with an approved Register.
As I said above, the main users of the Register will be the employees of the Police, law enforcement agencies, as well as any institution that works with or for children, without any difference whether they are public or private. In this context, the law includes the obligation of institutions to have and implement the highest Safeguarding standards, including child and adolescent protection policy from violence, abuse, and exploitation.
Iconstyle: What are the steps that the initiative is following? Who is lobbying in your favour, what has been done so far?
Altin Hazizaj:We think that this is not a matter of lobbying, because after 22 cases of violence and sexual exploitation of girls and children identified only during 2020, I am sure that every responsible MP feels guilty and should ask himself / herself why did we not approved amendments to the Criminal Code, including the establishment of the Sex Offenders Register. It is a very big responsibility before the voters when their children are found legally and institutionally unprotected from sexual violence and exploitation. Moreover, sex crimes tend to incite revenge crimes, because if there is one thing that the human being does not forgive, it is the harm that one can have on children. So I think that we are coming to the aid of the children but also of the Parliament at the right time, thus I do not believe that there will be any MP who will say no to the changes in the Criminal Code and on the National Register for Sexual Crimes.
Iconstyle: Do you have any statistics on these crimes, despite the figures provided by the police? How do you help children who are victims?
Altin Hazizaj:Albania has quite detailed statistics regarding sexual violence against children and sexual crimes against them. One thing that is worth mentioning is that children in Albania declare less violence and sexual harassment than children in the European Union, which taking into consideration on our nature on keeping such things secret or because of the fear that accompanies sexual violence, is understandable. According to the Balkan study, BECAN, 1 in 10 children in Albania is a victim of sexual violence, while at EU level the data shows that in 1 in 5 or 6 children are victims of sexual abuse. But if Albania manages to sentence only 42% of sexual crimes against children, the EU manages to sentence almost 70% of them.
There is also a significant difference in the way cases are handled in EU countries compared to Albania and this led us to establish the first ever National Centre for the Protection of Children and Adolescents from Sexual Violence (Barnahus Albania) in 2019. Since the opening of the Centre, we have provided legal and social services, counselling, and court support to over 30 cases of children and adolescents victims of sexual violence: all girls! Given the lack of reporting from boys, we started a month ago, a boys' awareness campaign to report any sexual harassment or violence experienced in their life, under the slogan: Sexual violence doesn’t ask for age or gender! Report it!
I hope that in cooperation with our colleagues in the media we will make possible the awareness of as many children and adolescents as possible across Albania.
Iconstyle: How do the police react to your reports?
Altin Hazizaj:In fact, we must say that from almost 2 years of experience with the Barnahus - the Police is the institution that most of the time not only takes cases seriously, but also follows them with its experts and, as the case may be, with our support also. Of course, there are cases when some police officers do not follow the proper procedures. What we see with concern between the Police and the Prosecution, for example, are the standard tests that a victim of sexual violence must follow. In Albania, only a forensic test is performed on whether the child is raped or not, while everywhere in the world the saliva, anus test, pregnancy, HIV / AIDS and STD tests are taken - which could prove not only the guilt of the perpetrator but also the damage he has inflicted on the victim, which can sometimes be for all life (in the case of HIV / AIDS). Often the victim's clothes are not taken as material evidence and no genetic tests are performed on them that can provide signs of biological residue from the perpetrator. All these serious shortcomings in the investigation process, result in more than half of those accused of sex crimes against children being released for lack of evidence or convicted for a lesser crime. In this context, the Prosecution and the State Police need to be trained and get specialize in all areas of sexual crimes, including scientific collection of evidence from the crime scene, which right now is not well-organised.
While a major concern remains the indemnification of the sex crime victim. So far, even though the prosecution has been working for years to protect the victims, we have very few cases of their compensation by court decision. That leaves the victims in a serious emotional state, or their parents, as they feel that the justice system has not adequately protected their interests and has not given justice. Here I think there is a need for some emergency intervention, whether through improving the criminal procedural law or approve a new law on victims’ rights to compensation. I have to admit with a lot of pain that we have a long way to go, but I hope that the end of this year will find us with a National Action Plan against Child Sexual Violence, a National Register pf Sexual Offenders and a Criminal Code that protects children from sexual crimes.
The Interview was published exclusively by IconStyle Magazine, 31 October 2020