A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Help us get away with murder

police tape

For Bashkim, a 25-year-old Albanian-American dishwasher, the trouble all started after he started having an affair with his boss’s wife. When his boss heard the rumors, he immediately confronted his wife.

Luljeta claimed that Bashkim, who was nearly 20 years younger than her, had raped her in the diner, after hours, on several occasions. Her husband, Illir, called the Anchorage police, who investigated the claims and discovered that Luljeta had actually paid for motel rooms used for afternoon trysts with Bashkim. The police dropped the charges but Ilir was irate and unsure of whom to blame.

Several months later, Bashkim traveled to Kicevo, a small city in Macedonia, the country of his parents’ birth, for the first time, along with his father, Nick, and cousin, Tony. Arranged marriage is still common amongst Albanian-Americans and Nick wanted his son to meet a woman they wanted him to marry.

The trio met with the young woman and her family in a café in downtown Kicevo, a shabby, provincial city with a substantial ethnic-Albanian community, and wedding plans were sealed over coffee and cigarettes in the traditional Albanian custom. But as the group walked out of the café, a masked man dressed in a joggers outfit opened fire on them, with bullets hitting Nick and Bashkim in the head.

Tony was hit in the buttocks, but managed to disarm the gunman, who fled into a getaway vehicle. The victims were rushed to a local hospital, where Nick, 46, was pronounced dead on arrival. Bashkim was seriously wounded but made a full recovery, as did Tony. A few months later, Ilir was extradited from Alaska to Macedonia to stand trial for murder.

When Americans are locked up abroad, American Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) will visit them in prison and will typically attend their trial, if possible. But what many travelers and expatriates often fail to understand is that Americans are always subject to local laws and judicial proceedings – even if they are capricious and backward.

FSO’s can provide detained Americans with a list of local attorneys, help the American get in touch with people in the U.S., and try to ensure that the American isn’t being mistreated in the prison. They can also explain the local law and what the court proceedings are likely to entail but they can’t do much more than that, and this often creates friction.I once had to deal with a recently naturalized American citizen from Bulgaria who was arrested in Macedonia on an Interpol warrant for mail fraud, among other offences. He spoke no English and his ties to the U.S. were sketchy at best, but his son was on the phone every day harassing us about why we weren’t “doing more” to get his father out of prison.

“He’s an American citizen,” the son cried. “You are the American embassy! Do something. Get him out!”

The son kept telling me that his father’s imprisonment was a violation of the Geneva Convention and he encouraged me to study that document more closely to find ways to get his father released. I wanted to tell him that there were no special provisions for Bulgarian mafia thugs in the Geneva Convention and that I hoped his dad rotted in prison, but as a civil servant tasked with “helping people” I would simply mutter platitudes like, “Geneva Convention, OK, I’ll look into that.”

America may be the world’s lone superpower, but, no, we do not have the power to get oversea Americans out of prison, even if we believe that they’re innocent. (And in that case, there was overwhelming evidence against the Bulgarian-American and he was convicted.)

Shortly after I arrived in Macedonia for a two-year tour at the American embassy, my boss asked me to follow Illir’s trial in Kicevo, a two-hour drive south from the Macedonian capital, Skopje. Despite the fact that Illir owned two restaurants in Alaska, we found out that he was actually living in the U.S. illegally, on a long-expired tourist visa. So as representatives of the U.S. government, he wasn’t our problem. But since the victims were U.S. citizens, we wanted to follow the trial.

Two years before I arrived in the country, Illir was acquitted of the murder charge. But in Macedonia, the prosecution can appeal an acquittal, and a year later, in the appeal he was found guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison. As Bashkim exited the courtroom, a 65-year-old woman, who was later identified as Luljeta’s mother, lunged at him with a large kitchen knife but was knocked down by a bystander.

Illir appealed the conviction and I was in attendance for the court proceedings, along with a local employee from the embassy named Ljupka. It was my first time in a Macedonian courtroom and I couldn’t help but wonder why there was a huge pile of at least 100 old typewriters in the corner of the room.

“This is Macedonia,” Ljupka said. “Who knows?”

After getting shot on his first visit to Macedonia, and nearly getting stabbed by Luljeta’s mother on his most recent visit, Bashkim elected to stay in Alaska for Illir’s appeal, so Illir was the focal point of the proceedings. He had two defense strategies. The first was to highlight his illegal status in the U.S. He argued that he couldn’t have left the U.S. to come to Macedonia to kill Bashkim because then he wouldn’t have been able to re-enter the country to attend to his restaurants.

But after the prosecutors showed evidence that Illir had used his old Macedonian passport to cross into Macedonia by land from Albania less than 24 hours before the murder took place, he tried a different tact. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and began to read off a list of names.

“What’s going on?” I asked Ljupka.

“He says that he’s spent the last year trying to bribe his way out prison,” she said. “And he’s naming all the people he gave bribes to and how much he paid.”

Some of the people he was naming were in the room but it didn’t matter. The conviction was upheld and Illir spent the next seven years in prison. I’m told that Bashkim, the former dishwasher, now owns his own restaurant in Fairbanks. His father is gone but not forgotten.

Twelve years have passed since the murder took place and I’m told that Illir, who never confessed to the crime, more or less has his old life back. He somehow found a way to get back into the U.S. and is keeping a low profile in Alaska, presumably keeping a close eye on his wife.

Note: the names of the individuals mentioned in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

Photo via Tony Webster on Flickr.