Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Statement by the U.S. Embassy (June 24, 2008)

Statement by the U.S. Embassy (June 24, 2008)

Ambassador Withers is aware of the claims presented in Congressman Henry Waxman’s June 23 letter to Secretary Rice. He is studying the content of that letter and will prepare a full refutation of any allegations against the U.S. Embassy or himself once he has done so.

As he has said publicly many times, the Ambassador is a steadfast believer that a fair examination of the evidence will lead, in the end, to the truth. He applies that principle equally to himself and to others in the absolute knowledge that the evidence in this matter, fully presented, will dissolve any and every assertion made against him, his staff, or his government.

Ambassador John L. Withers II and Panorama Newspaper Director Mr. Andi TelaDaily Panorama Interviews U.S. Ambassador John L. Withers II
(June 18, 2008)

Panorama: Mr. Ambassador, it is about a year since your arrival to Albania as the U.S. Ambassador and it is slightly more than a year from the visit of President Bush. In your opinion, what would President Bush say if he looked back at the commitments made and advice given during that visit?

Ambassador: I think that the visit of President Bush was historic not only for Albania but for America. I cannot recall a single act by an American leader that so captured, that so symbolized, the warm relationship between the American people and the Albanians. I know as a fact that the President still speaks about his visit here, and, from time to time, when people inform him that they will be coming to Albania, he tells them: “I’ve been there; it is great.” He recalls it with a great deal of pleasure. In some of the offices in the White House that I have visited to meet with White House staffers, there are pictures of the President with the crowds in Fushë Kruja. So, the memories of that visit are very warm and I think that that warmth captures the larger warmth between Albanians and Americans.

In terms of the themes, the President made two commitments when he was here: the first was that he would support an independent Kosovo and he kept his promise; and the second, he said he would support Albania’s invitation into the NATO Alliance and he kept his promise on that. The President is a man of his word. He also gave some advice to the Albanian government and the Albanian people. I think, in terms of that advice, there are still lessons that the people and the government here can learn. If you don’t mind, let me quote one of the things he said: “It is very important for political figures here in this country to understand what is at stake. The politicians have got to work together now to meet the standards. They've got to set aside political differences and focus on what's right for Albania. If the Albanian people want to join NATO, then the politicians have got to work to meet those standards.” I think that that advice is still very relevant today.

Panorama: Ok, after the promise made by President Bush, Albania did receive the invitation to join NATO. Now, there is nothing else to it? We will have an Ambassador and a mission there and contribute to some military exercise of the Alliance, that’s it?

Ambassador: I’m very glad that you asked that question. There is much, much more to it. Let me try to explain. The invitation to Albania and Croatia to join the Alliance is a very important first step. I have called it an historic first step and so has the Prime Minister. But the real work is ahead. Prior to that invitation, Albania and the other nations worked hard to complete reforms that would strengthen democracy. Now, with the invitation, it is expected that Albania will implement those reforms, will follow, will meet the criteria at the highest standard. It is no longer possible for Albania or any nation invited to NATO to relax, to take for granted that the ratification will happen, to return to old ways of doing things. Albania must now move forward, it must advance, it must ensure not simply a commitment in principle to democracy but a commitment in actual practice, at a much higher level than ever before. This is not an expectation. This is something that joining the most important alliance in history requires. It is vital that independent institutions not only be preserved, but that they be strengthened. They must not come under political attack. They must be free to carry out their duties in the way that they were constructed to carry them out. Pluralism must not be a distant dream; it must be a reality now. People, individuals, must be able to exercise their rights, to voice their opinions without political considerations. This is the new step that the NATO invitation requires. Our Senate and the legislatures of all of the Alliance will now be looking at Albania and Croatia and any other member who has been invited to see that this is true. That it is reality. So, there is much more scrutiny now, not less. There is much more expectation than ever before. That is the price of membership.

Panorama: You mentioned independent institutions and political attacks. A day from yesterday the Parliament voted down decrees of the President appointing five new members of the Supreme Court, including a former judge of the Strasbourg Court who served there nine years. He was also voted down en block. What is your opinion on this vote? I would also like to know about your role in your meetings with President Topi, earlier with Speaker Topalli and perhaps a recent meeting with PM Berisha.

Ambassador: I would like to be very candid. I was very disturbed by the actions in Parliament Monday. Frankly speaking, it is impossible for me to believe that not one of the candidates put forward was considered qualified. This people combined experience, education, skills, background, training. As you mentioned, one was a justice for nine years at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. And yet not one was considered qualified. This is disturbing and I can only conclude that the deputies used technicalities in the law to circumvent, even subvert, the spirit of democratic principles. For Americans, we cannot tolerate simply the appearance of democratic actions. We require the substance of democracy in all instances. The actions of the Parliament on Monday night, frankly speaking, were unworthy of a democratic institution. It is important now that all parties, all sides, all actors find of a way of resolving their differences immediately in a way that respects the prerogatives, the privileges and the responsibilities of all, that does not seek to gain political advantage, but that reaches the common ground that is necessary to move forward with the naming of judges. The Supreme Court is simply too important to become a political football.

Panorama: And what about your contacts with the President and other figures?

Ambassador: I have spoken as you mentioned with many of the key figures on this and other subjects. I simply wanted to make clear the view of the American government and of the American people and to encourage, to the limited extent that I can, that a way forward, respectful of everyone’s equities, be found.

Panorama: It is three months now from the Gërdec explosion. The immunity of the former Defense Minister has finally been lifted; the Prosecutor General is conducting investigations, sometimes under attacks from politicians; former employees are on hunger strike claiming for more compensation from the government. How do you see the whole Gërdec affair developing?

Ambassador: I think that we have to start with consideration for the victims of the tragedy. They, in one single moment, had their lives changed forever. Many people lost their lives, including young and innocent children, and I think we must never forget that they are at the heart of all approaches and, hopefully, of all solutions that are found in terms of the explosion that happened there. I have in the past called strongly for the investigation into this incident to be thorough, to be impartial, to be free of political interference. I repeat that call. It is important in helping the victims of Gërdec find the truth, that there be no attempt to maneuver or to interfere with a free and impartial investigation. That is the only way that we can reach the bottom of what happened. The Prosecutor General is pursuing this matter. I have urged and will continue to urge that she be allowed to perform her duties as the rules and the laws of Albania were constructed to have her do.

One other point that I would make about Gërdec. It’s another thing I have talked about, but I am even more worried about now. And that is that many of the people who had homes within the area of the blast are returning to the area. Some of my staff who have been there as recently as yesterday report that people are building new homes there, very close to the site of the original explosion. I repeat again as loudly and as strongly and as clearly as I can that it is dangerous for them to do so. There is still ordinance, there are still munitions out there that are unexploded but that could explode at any time. The danger of a secondary explosion is real and the last thing that anyone would want would be for Gërdec to claim more victims. It has already claimed too many. We have talked at great length with the Albanian authorities at the highest levels; we have made it clear that their full and complete support in urging people not to return is needed. We would hope that there are no political considerations behind these people going back. A strong voice from the Albanian government is needed to say: Please, please, within an 800 meter radius of that blast, it is unsafe in terms of additional explosions; it is unsafe in terms of environmental hazards; it is unsafe in terms of unstable buildings for people to inhabit that area until a full and complete cleanup has been accomplished. And that may take a while.

Panorama: I would like to ask an additional question, since we are talking about Gërdec. There have been reports in the media that munitions from Albania have been transported to Afghanistan, reports implicating the American company AEY. Can you let us know how are investigations in the U.S. proceeding” Hass there been cooperation between the American and Albanian prosecutors on this issue?

Ambassador: Let me say at the start that under our laws I cannot comment on the substance of any ongoing investigation. What I can tell you is that a very serious investigation is under way, looking at all aspects of this issue, including the role of the company that you cite, AEY, that all avenues of evidence are being looked into. There is cooperation between our authorities and the Albanian authorities to get to the bottom of that matter as well. For the moment, I really cannot say much more than that. But rest assured that, as we advise the Albanian government to conduct an inquiry based on evidence and evidence alone and to prosecute whomever and wherever that evidence leads, we are doing the same.

Panorama: It seems like this is an interview about anniversaries. In exactly a year from now there will be a general election in Albania. Do you think everything necessary is being done regarding the electoral reform and the ID cards?

Ambassador: I certainly hope so. You know elections for people in my country are not just casual things. Elections are the fundamental action of a democracy. And for elections to be free and fair, to be well administered, to be organized, to be free of any problems, of managing them, or influencing them in any kind of way, is the basic standard that Americans have. Obviously there is more – there’s the court system, there’s the legislative system, there is more. But we start the foundation of a democracy with the elections. And it is vital to Albania that these next elections be free from the flaws that previous elections had. It will be a test for Albania in terms of the American people and of other people throughout the world. I actually support the call, strongly support the call of Prime Minister Berisha, who has asked that the rewriting of the electoral code take place without delay, immediately and expeditiously. I support that completely. It is very important that the processes of the civil registry and of the ID cards take place, be complete, be ready to go when the voting takes place this next summer. I call on everyone who is involved to remain aware that time is passing. Please, do not delay in this. Please move forward so that the next elections go smoothly and fairly.

Panorama: Say another U.S. President would visit Albania. What would you like to see happen in Albania before that?

Ambassador: One of my fondest dreams is to be able to have a visit by the next American president. Obviously we have elections, obviously whomever takes office will have to take time to get organized and to look into his many responsibilities. But nevertheless, at some point, the President will travel and one of the priorities for all of us at this Embassy is to encourage that next President to come here. If that President comes here, I think that he will see a true friend of America in the Albanian people. People who have stood with us throughout and with whom we hope to continue to stand side by side and be fully supportive. What would I like to see? I am a great believer in Albania, in the people of Albania, in the future of this country. I want to see all of the energy, the dynamism, the talent that I have found in this land merge together into a unified force that takes on the problems that still remain here. That defeats corruption; that resolves the problem of human trafficking; that achieves gender equality; that attacks poverty and sees to a better life for poor people in this country. I want the lessons that Albania has already learned to be shared outside. The lessons of religious tolerance such as is shown throughout this country; the wonderful story of the Holocaust; the hospitality of these people to foreign guests. All of these are things are Albania’s to teach the world and it is important for the world to learn. So, when the next American President comes here, which I hope will not be too far ahead in the future, event though, obviously, I don’t even know who that president would be, I hope that he will find an Albania that the people here have worked hard to achieve. That he will find Albanians leading the good, secure, free, open, democratic life that they deserve.

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