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Saying farewell to an Albanian hero in the fight against corruption

For centuries, if a woman wanted to play a prominent public role in Albania's closed-off, conservative society, she had to chop off her hair, borrow a pair of baggy trousers, sport a gun, and forgo marriage, sex, or children. Ina Rama shattered that mold when she became the country's first female general prosecutor five years ago. A diminutive, attractive blonde with movie-star charisma, she's been an unlikely hero on the otherwise dismal world of Albanian politics.

During her time in office she's single-handedly led a campaign against corrupt officials in high places, an effort that has put her male counterparts to shame. But no one would claim that it's been easy. Instead of receiving kudos for her courage, she's been attacked as a "street prostitute" and a "witch." Throughout her term, Rama has found herself under fire from both government and opposition, sometimes for such trivial issues as her hairstyle, or for giving an interview to a women's magazine.

Few of her prosecutions have yielded convictions, thanks to the country's corrupt justice system. There have been plenty of moments when it looked as though she was pushing an immense boulder uphill by herself, only for everyone to watch it roll back down again at the last moment. As Albanians prepare to say farewell to our intrepid prosecutor when her term expires at the end of this month, however, we have to acknowledge that she has made a profound contribution precisely by so stubbornly defending the independence of her institution and the rule of law.

Since communism crumbled in 1991, Albania has staggered through a difficult and often tumultuous transition to democracy marred by fraudulent elections, political strife, and corruption.

Rama was a virtual unknown outside the judicial community when she appeared on the scene five years ago. Then-Prime Minister Sali Berisha introduced her as the country's "Silvia Conti." Silvia Conti, a fashion-conscious judge, is a fictional character who battles the Sicilian Mafia in an Italian TV drama, La Piovra ("The Octopus"), that was hugely popular in Albania at the time.

An ex-communist party functionary turned capitalist, Berisha served as president after the communist regime fell in 1991. He was deposed in 1997 by a popular revolt following the collapse of a series of Ponzi investment schemes. Many Albanians who had invested their savings lost everything. Berisha returned to power in 2005 with his center-right Democratic Party on promises of a "Clean Hands" anti-corruption campaign. As it happened, his hands and those of his ministers soon turned dirty, marred in corruption scandals that extended to his inner circle, family, and close political allies.

The political love affair between the prime minister and his crusading prosecutor fell apart on March 15, 2008, when an explosion at a munitions factory just outside the capital Tirana demolished an entire village, killing 26 people and injuring more than 300. Rama immediately smelled a rat, and launched an investigation that led to the indictment of the minister of defense and the army's top brass on charges of abuse of power.

Since then Rama has filed corruption charges against two other ministers in Berisha's cabinet and former Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta. The indictments have infuriated the Albanian premier, who has called them "one-sided" and threatened to put Rama behind bars when she leaves office.

While the indictments have not exactly made Rama friends among the political elite, she has won powerful allies in the United States and the European Union. "It does not take any great wisdom on my part to predict that when the history of Albanian democracy is written, there will be a special chapter in it for people like Ina Rama," former U.S. Ambassador in Tirana, John Withers, once famously remarked.

Withers' words would sound almost prophetic to most Albanians, when on February 2, 2011, Rama was subpoenaed to testify in front of an investigative parliamentary commission that accused her of acting as a conspirator in a coup d'état. She had kindled the ire of the government by ordering a probe into the deaths of four unarmed protesters during an anti-government rally and by failing to follow up on government claims that the violent protest was actually an attempted coup.

According to the premier and his Democratic Party, the coup plotters included not only Rama but also the opposition Socialists, ex-President Bamir Topi, and the head of the secret service. The protestors during the riots, Berisha claimed, had made use of sophisticated weapons, like "umbrella-shaped pistols, pen pistols and knives with poisonous tips." He even promised to pay any witnesses who came forward to corroborate the conspiracy.

The commission evoked bitter memories of the show trials that took place under the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha, who built a personality cult that rivals the likes of Kim Jong Il.

Although interrupted several times during her testimony, Rama remained cool and defiant during the hearing, making it clear to the committee members that she would "bow only to the constitution and the law." Before the hearing came to an end, one MP, Fatos Hoxha, was heard to ask his colleagues: "Where does she get the courage?"

Albania's most renowned writer, Ismail Kadare, once compared Albanian society to a patient racked by fever who, instead of checking his temperature, breaks the thermometer. The country today remains as fantastically corrupt as it was five years ago when Rama took office. One recent survey revealed that judges not only accept bribes, but also pay them. (Like many Albanians, they apparently regard paying bribes to doctors to ensure better medical care as a routine practice.)

Many argue that her efforts were futile and even naive; ultimately, they say, corruption in Albania can be combated only if the country's collective willingness to tolerate it is cured first. Others complain that she didn't try hard enough.

Personally I believe that, even if she were able to cast spells (as the government claims), Rama would need to pull some pretty scary voodoo tricks to succeed when so many wanted her to fail. However, what is more daunting than her perceived failures is the widespread inclination to sneer at her achievements. Whoever fills her shoes as prosecutor will have no illusions about what the job entails.

Besar Likmeta is an editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, based in Tirana, Albania and a winner of the 2009 CEI-SEEMO Award for Investigative Journalism.

Photo by GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images

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