The way she tells it, she was a familiar face at the police station in southern Kosovo where she had so often sought sanctuary from her violent husband. She was in her early 20s when the marriage descended into a nightmare of abuse. Among other tortures, he taunted her with a pistol. One day, she got hold of the gun and took it to the station, fearing for her life. “The policeman who dealt with me happened to be my husband’s friend,” said the woman, now 31. “He told me that if I were his wife, I wouldn’t have been able to bring the gun because he would have killed me first.” In the end, it was she who killed her husband. She cut his throat with a razor.
Sitting in a grimy office chair in the interview room of Kosovo’s only jail for women, on the outskirts of the town of Lipjan just south of Pristina, she reflected on her 12-year sentence for murder. Eight years and four months served, fewer than four years to go. The judge was too harsh, she said, her eyelashes thick with mascara from a vocational beauty class at the prison. What about all the years of violence, the unanswered cries for help? Sevdije Morina, deputy head prosecutor in Pristina, described the sentence as “a normal conviction” that did not take into account mitigating circumstances. “Her husband really made her suffer,” she said.
Victims of domestic violence in Kosovo are often at the mercy of a justice system that fails to protect them, and lacks leniency when desperation boils over into self-defence or retaliation, lawyers and rights activists say. As in other patriarchal societies in the region, discrimination and double standards toward violent crime by men and women shape the priorities of overburdened police, prosecutors and judges. But Kosovo is unique in being cut off from key instruments of European justice due to its unresolved political status as a country, giving activists few levers for change. “We call it the black hole of Europe,” said Hilmi Jashari, Kosovo’s independent ombudsman, whose office defends the public’s interests. “Kosovo is actually the only country [in Europe] where citizens can’t go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.”
Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian country that declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is not recognised by some nations including Serbia, Russia and China. That means it has been unable to join the Council of Europe, which upholds civil and political rights across 47 member states. The court in Strasbourg, France, is the council’s arbiter. What happens in Strasbourg does, in theory, influence how Kosovo tackles domestic violence and protects victims. Kosovo’s constitution states that its laws should be interpreted in line with rulings by the court. But since Strasbourg has no power to impose penalties on Kosovo, the constitution’s lofty principles rarely affect decisions made on the ground. Such decisions involve rank-and-file members of a justice system buckling under the weight of too many cases in one of Europe’s poorest economies. They determine how police and prosecutors act on reports of domestic abuse and whether judges issue restraining orders. And in extreme cases where victims turn the table on their tormentors, judges have to decide appropriate sentences for killers suffering from battered person syndrome, a form of psychological trauma caused by prolonged abuse.
“The European Court of Human Rights doesn’t ask whether you have people to do the job, or whether you can afford it,” said prosecutor Morina. “Human rights must be respected, and when violated, the state would collapse on its knees with the sanctions it would receive [if Kosovo were a member of the Council of Europe] … It would be the people holding the state accountable.” Ombudsman Jashari cited Italy as an example of a country that has improved its response to domestic violence as a result of years of rulings from the European Court of Human Rights. In one such recent ruling, in March, the court decided that Italian authorities had failed to protect a mother and son by not acting swiftly on a complaint of prolonged domestic violence that resulted in the son’s murder and the mother’s attempted murder by her husband.