by Albi Çela

The plane took off from the dark track of Istanbul Airport. I had fallen asleep while waiting to depart, and the deafening noise of the rumbling engines woke me up instantly. It was December 27, 2019, and I was on a Boeing Airbus of the Turkish Airlines fleet, heading to Washington D.C., across the “pond”, to the land of liberty and opportunities. On my hand I was still holding the book I was reading, “How Democracies Die” written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. I sat straight and for a moment I thought how, just a few hours earlier I had been home, in my warm bed, in Tirana. It marked exactly a month and a day since a deadly earthquake hit central Albania. On November 26, at 04:00 a.m., I woke up in horror as the 8-floor building I lived in, started shaking violently. I felt fear like never before and prepared for the worst. Luckily, the building held up, suffering only minor structural damage. That day though, marked an unprecedented turning point for Albania’s state of democracy and rule of law. 

The month following the earthquake witnessed pervasive attempts of the Albanian Government to undermine fundamental human rights and freedoms, while thousands of people had been left homeless and devastated from the catastrophic event. Of course, these attempts were not recent. The past two years were marked by attempts to muzzle the press through anti-defamation draconian laws, attacks and slams against journalists, and forceful dispersal of protests, though political ones, by means of using unproportionate police force. One still remembers the attempts to deport Alice Taylor1 , a British journalist, without any legal ground, the firing of anchor Adi Krasta2 for speaking against the government, the asylum request of Agron Tufa3 , and Prime Minister Edi Rama’s smears4 and SLAPP’s against Albanian and foreign journalists. 

In the meantime, I had landed in D.C., and was starting a new life, away from family, friends, and my country, who was now facing a series of challenges. A few months earlier I was offered to pursue a one-year fully funded program at Arizona State University, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, in Washington D.C. The International Rule of Law and Security Program, designed to prepare young lawyers to promote justice, good governance, rule of law and human rights, became my next challenge after 6 years of legal education, and training. I decided to keep my focus on human rights, so I enrolled in the International Human Rights Law class, for the third time in my student life. I also started interning at one of the most prestigious human rights organizations globally, the International Center for Non-Profit Law. Their work focused primarily on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. It was the perfect place to practice and enhance my knowledge on topics that were major issues in Albania.

Between daily life, school, and work, everyday I tried to make time and follow what was happening back home. Whether it was reading short articles, watching the news, or exchanging text messages with friends and colleagues from the “front line”, I felt it was my civic duty not to lose ties with the situation in my country. Though, I must tell things didn’t look well. The government tried to adopt a media law8 that would muzzle the few critical voices left, despite the continuous protests of international and local watchdogs. Luckily, this pervasive attempt to undermine freedom of speech and the press once and for all, was put on a halt by the Venice Commission9 , at least for the time being. In the meantime, I did what the circumstances allowed me to. Speaking up, writing, and raising my voice at a time in which the government was buying or pushing the media to self-censorship. My first op-ed ever published took quite some attention. Originally published at Balkan Insight10, a short piece I co-authored with, Pedro Pizano, a friend mentor of mine from the McCain Institute for International Leadership, was soon re-published in the U.S.11, Albania12, and across the Adriatic, in Italy13. Supporters of the ruling party associated me with the opposition for being critical against the government, while others didn’t like that I called the former Prime-Minister and opposition leader, an autocrat. It made me happy, because knew I was doing the right thing.

Long before I left Albania, word had spread that a new, deadly virus, was spotted in the Wuhan region of China. By mid-January, things started to look serious, and by the end of February the situation was going out of control in many countries. As expected, governments around the world started taking precautions. Enforcing curfew hours, limiting movement, and banning the assembly of people, were the most common. We, that study human rights, know very well that in such circumstance’s restriction of certain rights is unavoidable. However, there is still room for concern, rightfully so, and especially in countries with fragile democracy and rule of law. Sadly, Albania is one of them.

On March 12, 2020, Albania reported the first case of infection with the deadly Covid-19 virus. Based on a decree amended by the Council of Ministers, the country went immediately into lockdown. Several rights, including that of assembly and association were restricted. The Prime Minister himself didn’t forget to target the press as well. Through an automatic voice mail that played everytime someone tried to make a call, the voice of the Prime Minister would appear giving advice on how to protect from the virus. He closed the message saying, “Protect yourself from the press”. It reminded me of the 1984 Orwellian “Big Brother”.

Quarantine became the word of the day, and like almost everyone else I spent most of the time in my bedroom, avoiding contact with other people and going out unnecessarily. Spending so much time alone and isolated, instead of breaking my will, it motivated me even more. Knowing how the situation was in Albania, especially regarding human rights’ restrictions, but also keeping in mind that I wouldn’t be able to change much so I kept my feet on the ground, I launched a podcast, named “Rule of Law Albania”14. Inspired by the work of my mentor, Daniel Klingenberg, a former Fulbright Fellow in Albania, I decided to step forward, and speak up. Through this platform not only I would bring “innovation” in the country’s traditional way of making journalism, but also put forward my voice and those of others, without fear of censorship. Indeed, one of my first episodes was dedicated to freedom of speech and the press, “A government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government”, based on the famous Thomas Jefferson’s quote on the importance of a free press. 

“The theater fell” – I barely read on my phone screen while I was blindly looking for the glasses in the darkness. A friend had sent me a video attached to the short message. It was close to midnight in D.C. and just past dawn in Tirana. In less than 20 seconds I saw the front part of the National Theater of Albania collapsing after a strong hit by a crane, a cloud of smoke and dust covered the square in front of the theater, and the crumbling echoed against the walls of my empty room. Members of the civil society, and artists who had spent two years of their lives protecting the theater, were dragged out like criminals. On May 17, 2020, after more than two years of resistance, the theatre fell. Concerned citizens took the streets and marched towards the theatre never knowing what was waiting for them. The following hours witnessed police brutality against one of the most meaningful and peaceful protests ever held in Albania. Actors, activists, and journalists were dragged, beaten, and illegally detained. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, I sat in front of my laptop and watched in horror how the rights, liberties, and dignity of the citizens of Albania were being dragged to the ground. Writing and raising awareness on the violations that occurred that day was the sole thing I could do. One of my op-eds15 took the attention of a group of activists who had been inside the theatre the day it was demolished. They reached out and I immediately expressed my desire to help. In the upcoming weeks we managed to put together a complaint to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Assembly and of Association at the United Nations, who confirmed receipt and informed us on the workload that his office was having due to other events around the world. We are still waiting, but in the end, we did what we could and are proud for it. We kept working together despite the obstacles. Writing16 short pieces to raise awareness about the demolition of the theatre, making podcasts17 and appearing on national TV to speak up. The persistence of these activists was admirable. It’s been almost three years now, and even though the theatre is not there anymore, they keep fighting for justice, and inspiring thousands.

“The prohibition of assemblies and protests is a necessary measure to prevent the spread of the virus”. This was the government’s justification every time a protest was dispersed. In the months following the Theatre’s demolition, several other protests were forcefully dispersed by the police. In the meantime, the government was holding political rallies across the country, in violation of its own regulations. The double standards applied by the government were unacceptable and I raised this concern whenever I could. Isn’t a political rally a way of assembling? How does this differ from a group of concerned citizens peacefully protesting in front of a governmental building? Doesn’t the government have a positive obligation to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights? Instead of mobilizing thousands of police forces to stop a protest, why not engage them in facilitating and ensuring that health safety instructions such as social distancing and wearing masks are respected by the protesters? The answers were simple, but the government had another agenda.

We turned our eyes once again on our international friends and allies. In early August I drafted a communication letter18 on the human rights situation in Albania, and with the help of a group of Albanian activists living abroad, we sent it to the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe. Knowing how busy the Commissioner would be, I sent a follow up communication19 in October. In early December we heard back from their office, asking to conduct an online meeting 20with us. The results of the discussion were promising, but the situation in Albania just got worse. Thousands of citizens took the street after the police killed an unarmed man. For almost a week, protesters faced police brutality and unproportionate use of force. The Minister of Interior resigned and the officer was subsequently charged. Hundreds were detained, including members of the press.

The contacts with the Commissioner’s office became more frequent each day. Emails, early morning calls, more emails, and finally, in the morning of December 16, 2020, I woke up reading the Commissioner’s statement “Albanian authorities must prevent further police violence and uphold the right to freedom of assembly”.21 The news spread with the speed of sound across Albania. The government silenced, and eventually police violence stopped. A long and troubled year was closed with a ray of light, and a new one awaits us with other challenges. We may or may not succeed, but we must never stop, because the road towards democracy is long and full of obstacles 

This story was originally published by Civil Rights Defenders as part of the 2020 Human Rights Stories: Challenges and Accomplishments in the Western Balkans.