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Last Updated: Friday, 23 July, 2004, 02:00 GMT 03:00 UK
Albania seeks to compensate political prisoners
By Matt Prodger
Burrel, Albania

The Albanian government has passed a law which it hopes will finally settle the vexed issue of compensation for former political prisoners.

Thousands of Albanians were jailed, tortured and executed under the isolationist communist government which ruled the country for more than 40 years.

Agron Kalaja (left) and Adem Allci
Between them Agron Kalaja (left) and Adem Allci spent 48 years in jail
The prisoners were released and pardoned more than a decade ago, but many have yet to receive anything at all.

Burrel prison is a small ramshackle building on a hilltop some two hours drive from the Albanian capital Tirana. Its very name fills former political prisoners with dread. For many years this is the kind of place where those deemed a threat to the communist state were sent to serve their sentences.

Just how many is a matter of dispute, but at least 6,000 and as many as 25,000. Among them two men, Adem Allci and Agron Kalaja. Adem has been back to Burrel before - there is a plaque in his honour on the prison wall - but for Agron this is the first time in 20 years.

Between them they spent 48 years of their lives in prison. Their crimes: spreading propaganda and opposing the collectivisation of Albania's farms.

Cheap labour

That may sound harsh, but another man spent several years inside for simply owning a cassette by the British singer Joe Cocker.

Burell is now a normal prison, but as Adem and Agron peer through the barbed wire, the sight of prisoners in the yard below brings back memories, and silent tears.

Some of them don't even know where the bodies of their loved ones are
Adem Allci
Adem says: "This is nothing but a graveyard and it took the best years of my life.

"I was here for 28 years, my family as a whole spent a total of 100 years here. Can you imagine how many families were affected? Some of them don't even know where the bodies of their loved ones are.''

Under the Communists, political prisoners were a source of free labour. They worked in the factories, in the fields, in the mines. They even built Tirana's sports stadium. Many died from hunger and exhaustion. But those that survived are not broken. They are angry.

They have staged several protests in the capital Tirana. Many are still waiting for compensation promised them 10 years ago, when a law was passed which entitled them to $30 (16) for every day in prison.

The problem, says the country's Finance Minister Arben Malaj, is that Albania is too poor to pay them.

"The compensation they're asking for amounts to $1.2bn (658m)," he said. "That's an impossible amount for the Albanian budget.''


Under a new law, the government is instead offering them a pension worth a maximum of $50 (27) a month.

What makes the former prisoners even more angry is that Prime Minister Fatos Nano and other senior figures have received compensation.

Mr Nano spent a spell in prison in the 1990s when he was convicted for corruption.

Sports stadium, Tirana
Political prisoners were forced to build Tirana's sports stadium
That conviction was later overturned, Mr Nano took his case for compensation to court, and won.

More than a decade after communism, Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe.

And those who were released from jail at the start of the 1990s are some of the worst off. They walked out of the prison gates penniless, often traumatised by the experience. The lucky had extended family to help them out.

Back at Burell Prison one cell has been turned into a museum. Filthy mattresses line the floor, the names of the dead are listed on the walls.

From a plastic bag, Adem Allci and Agron Kalaja produce their own souvenirs, including the very same manacles which were used to bind them for days on end. They still have the scars on their wrists and ankles.

On the wall of the cell there is a photo of Adem when he first arrived at the prison. He was 19. He walked out a free man at 47. And he wants more than his name and picture in a museum as recognition of the years he lost.

Thousands join Albania protests
21 Feb 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Albania
20 Jul 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Albania
08 Feb 04 |  Country profiles

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