Local officials help Kosovo officials with domestic violence cases

Kosovo has been described by some as a "black hole of domestic violence."

A few high-profile domestic violence cases that left victims dead and others without a sense of justice have stained the reputation of the small Balkan country, which gained independence a decade ago after a bitter war against the former Yugoslavia.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Mariam Bazzi went to Kosovo in September to talk with legal professionals about domestic violence prosecutions.

 But Kosovar officials are making progress in prosecuting domestic violence cases and they are getting some help from the United States — including from a local judge and prosecutor

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Trisha Gerard and Circuit Judge Mariam Bazzi recently traveled to Kosovo to share their knowledge and expertise with Kosovar officials about evidence-based prosecution of domestic violence cases. 

In Kosovo, which is predominantly Albanian and Muslim, domestic violence has traditionally been considered a "family matter" in which government shouldn't be involved, Gerard said.

"Domestic violence is a new concept to them," she said. "In Kosovo, you have a firmly established patriarchal community."

Gerard and Bazzi spent a week in September in Kosovo's capital city Pristina at a conference discussing the issue with Kosovar judges, prosecutors, police and other officials. 

Prosecutor Trisha Gerard says domestic violence prosecutions must be a collaborative effort.

"They are dealing with domestic violence where we were dealing with it 30 years ago so they're way behind us," said Gerard. "It's a young country and a very young judicial system and they're building it from the ground up but they have a very solid foundation."

Kosovo enacted laws against domestic violence only last year, according to Gerard, and officials have struggled to hold abusers accountable. The new legislation includes support funding for domestic violence shelters and training for staff members.

Gerard and Bazzi visited Kosovo under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training. The office brings in American criminal justice experts to teach and work with their Kosovar counterparts.

During their visit, the two helped a group of 20 Kosovar police officers, prosecutors, judges and victim advocates learn about ways to support and protect victims and hold offenders accountable.  

Faye S. Ehrenstamm, director of the federal office, said the program has made it a priority over the past five years to help Kosovo come to grips with domestic violence and address the factors that contribute to it.

 "Lack of economic opportunity and the lingering effects of the armed conflict with Yugoslavia make women and children especially susceptible to family and intimate partner violence, crimes which are underreported in Kosovo and which state institutions had struggled to address," Ehrenstamm said.

The Justice Department office has worked with officials in Kosovo to develop new sentencing guidelines and reached out to judges to help them understand how to issue appropriate sentences for violent crimes, helping the Balkan nation make "enormous strides," Ehrenstamm said. 

"The project has been immensely effective, so much that Kosovo, the youngest country in the region, now serves as a model for addressing victims’ rights for other countries with more established legal institutions,” she said.

According to Department of Justice officials, 32 percent of women in Kosovo experience domestic violence, similar to its prevalence in the United States.

“Domestic and other family violence is a pandemic," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said. "My office alone received almost 8,000 warrants for domestic violence in 2017. We have specially trained prosecutors doing this work every day. Even as America continues to struggle with this issue, I was honored to share one of our best prosecutorial experts, Trisha Gerard, with the country of Kosovo.”

One of the Kosovar prosecutors who attended the conference, Mone Syla from Gjakova, was the initial prosecutor in the widely publicized domestic violence case against Pjeter Nrecaj. The defendant, who was released from custody while awaiting trial, murdered his wife and daughter. He was sentenced last month to 24 years behind bars.

Federal officials say Nrecaj's case is an example of both the challenges and improvements that have been made in Kosovo's judicial system. While Nrecaj's long prison term came too late to help the victims, the sentence was a landmark event in a country where domestic violence offenders have typically received little if any punishment. 

Bazzi and Gerard talked to the Kosovar officials about using evidence-based investigations and community partnerships in fighting domestic violence.

"It has to be a collaborative effort and you have to bring all the partners to the table," said Gerard. "Community partners, religious partners ... it's not just police/prosecutor."

Bazzi and Gerard said religion plays a major role in daily life in Kosovo, making it crucial for faith leaders to be involved in preventing violence.

"It doesn't matter what country you're in, what language you may speak, what religion they are, domestic violence is the same no matter where you go. The dynamics are the same," said Gerard. "It's amazing how much exists out there. There are so many cases. They are so eager to learn."

Bazzi said she emphasized the importance of evidence-gathering in her discussions Kosovar officials. In the past, most domestic violence cases were formed around the victim's testimony, with little or no collection of other evidence, she said.

"I don't think (police) officers really saw themselves as part of the trial per se," said Bazzi. "It's almost like they didn't see themselves as being part of the presentation of the case."

Bazzi said after the turmoil of war, Kosovars have to "acclimate and relearn" their judicial system.

"They are willing to start talking about domestic violence, they're willing to accept that this is an issue. They're willing to working at combating it ...," she said. "...  it speaks volumes to their credit that they're willing to start taking these kinds of complex issues on."


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