State prosecutors in Kosovo have pressed charges against an “organised criminal group” of Albanians and Serbs accused of fraud, money laundering, abuse of power, tax evasion and bribery.
The group of 39 defendants includes 65-year-old former lawmaker Azem Syla, who used to represent President Hashim Thaci’s ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) in Parliament.
Syla, who stands accused of heading up the group, was allegedly involved in illegally acquiring public property worth €30 million along with his suspected co-conspirators, according to an indictment issued by the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) yesterday.
The gang, which prosecutors claim has been active since 2006, are alleged to have been involved in the misuse of public property and illegal construction on a grand scale, causing significant losses to a number of Kosovo Serbian families who were robbed of their property.
Much of the land alleged to have been obtained by the gang has now been placed under the management of government authorities, who hope to restore it to public ownership.
“They have collaborated with each other, each with a specific role, to deprive Kosovo of public property through criminal activities, including forged official documents, fraud and corrupt practices,” a statement issued by EULEX said of the accused.
Syla was detained when he handed himself into authorities back in April after police launched a large-scale operation to arrest those involved in the alleged conspiracy. He was released in late August, when a court ruled he posed no threat to witnesses in the case against him and his co-accused.
Only three weeks after being set free, Syla was rearrested for allegedly attempting to interfere with witnesses. His lawyer denied he had made efforts to contact anybody involved in the case, labelling his detention as “scandalous”.
Other prominent public figures embroiled in the affair include Safedin Haxhiu, former Director of the Pristina cadastre, and Nuhi Kuka, former Chair of the Criminal Court of Pristina, among a number of other former officials.
A 2011 Council of Europe report linked both Thaci and Syla with mafia-style organised crime groups that profited from activities including organ trafficking and assassinations during the years after the Kosovan war of the late 1990s. Syla has previously been questioned by police over accusations he was involved in hiring a hitman to kill a political opponent, but did not face charges.
A Hague special tribunal, which is expected to be fully operational by the first half of next year, has been established to investigate and potentially prosecute allegations made in the Council of Europe report. Syla and Thaci both vigorously deny the accusations made against them.