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Fugitive Albanian Spy Convicted of Torture, Hungary’s Credit Rating Takes Another Dive

Plus, an expensive dispute over a Yugoslav-era bank won’t go away, and Russia frees an imprisoned physicist after eight years.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, and Joshua Boissevain 26 November 2012

1. Missing Albanian spy gets prison for torture, kidnapping


A former Albanian spy has been convicted in absentia of the 1995 kidnapping and torture of a man who died from his injuries, Balkan Insight reports.


Ilir Kumbaro was an officer with Albania’s intelligence service when he abducted Remzi Hoxha, a Macedonian Albanian, in connection with an investigation into a plot to kill Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov.


Hoxha was one of three men taken to a safe house and tortured by Kumbaro, according to Balkan Insight. One of the men told the court that Kumbaro was trying to extract a confession of their involvement in a car bombing that injured Gligorov.


The spy sought asylum in the UK in 1996 under the name Shaqa Shatri, claiming to be a refugee from Kosovo. He was eventually granted a British passport and the BBC found him in 2009 living in public housing in southwestern London.


He skipped a bail hearing in December 2011 and has not been seen since. If he is sent back to Albania he faces a 15-year prison sentence.


2. Hungary’s credit rating takes another hit


The Hungarian economy is becoming less appealing to foreign investors, with the Standard and Poor’s rating agency further downgrading the country’s credit rating from BB+ to BB, Reuters reports.


S&P announced the move on 23 November, citing fears that “the government's unorthodox policies, including exceptional measures applied to the financial sector, could erode the country's medium-term growth potential,” in turn making it it difficult for Hungary reduce its debt. The ratings company was referring to tax hikes and levies on the banking, telecommunications, and energy industries that Hungary approved in May in an attempt to lower the budget deficit.


The Hungarian Ministry of Economy said the rating did not reflect reality, as the country’s budget deficit is under 3 percent of GDP, public debt is declining, and the current account is in surplus. “Based on all this, it's time that [S&P], a lobby institute of the speculators, downgrade itself,” the ministry said, according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription).


In November 2011, Moody's downgraded Hungary’s rating to junk status on the grounds that the country did not have a viable debt-cutting strategy. The following March the European Commission threatened to freeze its funding if the Hungary didn't reduce its budget deficit. However, Brussels lifted the sanctions in June after the government announced a series of taxes meant to lower the deficit.


3. European Court hands down expensive precedent in Yugoslav bank case


A long-running dispute over the fate of money deposited into a major Yugoslav-era bank has made its way to the European Court of Human Rights. The issue also casts a cloud over Croatia’s planned entry into the EU next year and leaves in limbo the savings of hundreds of thousands of people.


Savers across Yugoslavia, including hordes of guest workers who went to Germany in the 1970s, put their money in Ljubljanska Banka, which offered interest rates as high as 12 percent, a lawyer for the depositors told Deutsche Welle. In 1994, the bank’s assets, but not its liabilities, were taken over by Nova Ljubljanska Banka, leaving existing customers with no way to withdraw their money.


Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Slovenian government, which owns a majority share in the new bank, must pay back two of the former bank’s Bosnian depositors, plus interest and 4,000 euros ($5,200) per person in damages. The ruling is meant to apply to all savers in a similar situation. Ljubljana said it would appeal, arguing that the plaintiffs put their money into a Sarajevo branch and the money never left Bosnia.


Croatia also sued Slovenia to recover 270 million euros’ worth of deposits formerly held by its citizens that the Croatian government took over. EU member Slovenia has threatened to delay Croatia’s planned July 2013 entry into the bloc over the issue. The two governments are considering a compromise.


“These people made deposits into their savings accounts for years – or even decades,” Peter Mattil, a Munich lawyer representing guest workers who have since become German citizens, told Deutsche Welle.


4. Russia paroles scientist imprisoned for spying


Valentin Danilov
Russian physicist and convicted spy Valentin Danilov was given his freedom 24 September after serving eight years to the day of a 14-year prison sentence, Radio Free Europe reports.


Danilov, who was arrested in 2001 and sentenced in 2004 for selling classified information to China, said upon his release from a prison colony near the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk that his case was politically motivated. He was acquitted in 2003, but Russia’s supreme court overturned the verdict and he was convicted at a second trial in 2004, RIA Novosti reports.


Danilov has never denied selling information about Russian satellites to the Chinese, but he maintained that he was given permission to work with the Chinese and that the information he sold was not only declassified but also publicly available in academic literature. “I would really appreciate it if somebody finally told me what state secret I sold,” he told reporters.


The 66-year-old’s release on parole was not anticipated by human rights watchers, who have used Danilov’s case as an example of how President Vladimir Putin, during his first stint as president, influenced the courts to intimidate academics with ties to other countries, according to RFE.


5. Interactive map charts Russia’s environmental problem areas


The Russian Geographic Society and news agency RIA Novosti have created a map of ecological hot spots in Russia, The St. Petersburg Times reports.


The project, which grew out of frustration that authorities were ignoring environmental problems, allows visitors to submit issues in their areas. Launched in October, it has already received “dozens” of reports, the newspaper writes.


Air pollution is one of several environmental factors mapped on a new platform from RIA Novosti.


Ultimately, the project’s organizers will assess “a range of factors,” including air and water quality, the health of ecosystems, waste handling, corporate accountability, and the status of threatened species to assign regions environmental ratings.


“The officials in these regions will have a hard time explaining why they have been lax in dealing with these issues. I am convinced this project has huge potential, and could really improve the situation,” one environmental journalist said at the map’s launch event.


Russia has seen the birth of a new environmental movement in the past few years, spurred largely by the armies of volunteers who helped fight the horrific forest fires of 2010.
Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editorIoana Caloianu and Joshua Boissevain are TOL editorial assistants.
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