The sensational investigation launched in 2017 for about USD 1 million paid for lobbying in the US in favor of DP can now be considered a failed case. Faktoje brings an analysis of how the evidence collected for 2 years by the prosecutor’s office, with the accused former head of PD Lulzim Basha and two other party officials, was not enough to shed light on the so-called “Russian lobby file”.

Anila Hoxha

Known worldwide as the Russian lobby of the Democratic Party, led at the time by Lulzim Basha, the Albanian justice fascicle names its most unique case. On this issue, the prosecutors went to court divided. After losing on appeal, no prosecutor turned to the Supreme Court to file an appeal to exhaust all levels of the judiciary in Albania.

Although the decision of the Court of Appeal acusses  the prosecutor’s office of manipulating the evidence by serving an alienated testimonyby Nikolas Muzin, the prosecution of Appeal did not appeal to the Supreme Court, unexpectedly marking the final closure of the “court battle” in favor of Lulzim Basha, Arben Ristani, and Ilir Dervishi. However, this was not an acquittal, but a surrender and undoing of the 24 pieces of evidence that the prosecution claims to have collected over 2 years, which culminated in subpoenas, interrogations and incriminating communications.

The prosecutor who represented the case at the court of appeal, Nezir Gjoka, tells Faktoje that he did not appeal for Basha to the Supreme Court, because he fell ill with covid and for health reasons resigned from the position of the prosecutor. Consequently, someone else had to replace him and represent the prosecution on behalf of the state. But the decision dismissing the accusation about forgery of seals and stamps (Article 190/3 of the Criminal Code) against Basha, Ristani, and Dervishi was announced on May 14th, 2020, i.e. more than a month from the date the prosecutor left office. However, former prosecutor Gjoka insists that this decision was not justified until the day he left the status of magistrate.

Until June 30th, 2020, when I resigned from my position due to health reasons, the decision of the court was not published. Until the time I handed over the documents and files that I represented, this decision was not published. Then I don’t know what happened. I submitted all the materials to the secretariat of the Appellate Prosecutor’s Office together with the hand over documents and there is a protocol number with the status of each document “, the former prosecutor answered the question for Faktoje about the puzzle of what happened to the Basha, Ristani, and Dervishi file. On the other hand, the Appellate prosecutor’s office officially responded with the comment that “ recourse is the exclusive right of the prosecutor of the case “, who was no longer in office at the time when the Appellate forwarded the decision. But Jordan Daci, a well-known lawyer, says:

Normally, the prosecutor who had the case, as long as the decision was not published, did not have to make an appeal, because his term starts from the day the reasoned decision is published. In my opinion, the case became orphan due to the fact that there is a very large case load and there are very few prosecutors. For purposes of an appeal (recourse), another prosecutor should have been appointed. When the reasoned decision is published, it should have some reference, e.g. whether we go for recourse or not,” says Daci.

After four years of investigation against the main opposition leader that was closed with an unsubstantiated withdrawal of the Appellate and general prosecutor’s office, the clear decision of the Appellate court proves that the negligence of the prosecutor’s office concerning the “Russian lobbying” file did not consist of political charges only.

A story started with a big noise

From the study of the facts, “Faktoje” returns to the criminal case opened in 2018, which was triggered by a statement made by the general secretary of the Socialist Party, Taulant Balla on November 25th, according to which there is a figure of about one million dollars that have passed from the account of an offshore company to make payments in favor of DP. What Balla cites is the company “Biniatta Trade” as a company based in the tax haven countries, Belize, Central America. The names that need to be identified are the two Russian women Viktoria Valkovckava and Natasha Radysheva, who according to the investigation of “Mother Jones” and then according to the letters rogatory forwarded to Albania, they were in Seychelles, so it was impossible to interview them. Another equally important name is Nikolas Muzin and his statements about payments to F.A.R.A.. (US Department of Justice).

The roggatory letter that the court commented on

Considering it as an open source of information, the chief prosecutor of Tirana at that time, Dritan Rreshka (later dismissed from the vetting process) through a document holding protocol number 5494, requested legal assistance from the US judicial authorities. With the clarification that through the forms, political parties are obliged by law to declare expenses to the CEC for each electoral campaign, the existence of a contract (March 22nd, 2017) between DP and the lobbying company “Muzin Partners” with the payment of 75 thousand dollars divided into 3 installments. Meanwhile, from the procedural review of the F.A.R.A. website – at the US Department of Justice; it is noted that “Muzin partners” has made an additional declaration for lobbying subjects outside the USA where it declares that it received 675 thousand US dollars from the Democratic Party. The contract that is made public was signed by the chairman, Lulzim Basha, who during this year’s general elections ran as a candidate for prime minister,” says the letter obtained by Faktoje. Four months later, on July 20th, 2018, the US Department of Justice / Criminal Division gives official access to the acts registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (F.A.R.A.). But the letter says:

We will provide an investigative report of Nikolas Muzin’s interview when it becomes available.

From what the documents show, the additional statement reports a payment on March 24, 2017 from “Biniatta Trade LP” in the amount of 150 thousand dollars. Three days later, the Democratic Party paid for fees and expenses in the amount of 25 thousand dollars and the last one is reported on June 9th, 2017 in the amount of 500 thousand dollars. The Democratic Party clarified at the start of the proceedings that its lobbying activity in the USA was completely within the legal framework. Attached to this position was a letter dated April 10, 2017, the consultation agreement signed between Lulzim Basha and American citizen Nikolas Muzin, representative of Stonington Strategies/ division of Muzin Capitol Partners, bank documents that prove the monetary relationship of 25 thousand dollars. The prosecution insists on the existence of a statement by Nik Muzin admitting that he had received money from foreign entities. He mentioned as part of the 675 thousand dollars, an amount of 150 thousand paid by “Binniata trade” as compensation for Democratic Party activities, the lion’s share in this case. The letter, obtained by “Faktoje”, stated:

Biniata trade LP compensated the registrant for the activities developed on behalf of the Democratic Party to promote Albanian conservative leadership towards business and political leaders in the USA. “Biniata Trade LP made a single payment of $150,000 to the registrant which was disclosed in the registrant’s supplemental filing for the period ending September 30, 2017.”  Considered as a monetary value for lobbying in the USA, and compared with the figure of more than 88 million lek that the Democratic Party (DP) had available for expenses, the prosecution, making the comparisons, declares:

“It is impossible for the overview of the DP’s declared expenses and the expenses incurred for lobbying to co-exist.”

However, with the final decision, which dismisses all charges and puts a closure on Russian lobbying, the position of the prosecution is rejected. Both courts point out that the Americans’ letter is just one page of an agreement under which the Democratic Party will pay Stonington three installments of $25,000 to be settled electronically between March 22nd, April 22nd and May 22nd, 2017.

The additions to Muzin’s F.A.R.A. statement (Exhibit B to registration statement) are considered by the Albanian courts as agreements not signed by the parties. The Court of Appeal comments on the decision:

It is established that this agreement was concluded before the agreement with the Democratic Party of Albania and this party is not mentioned in it. On the contrary, it is foreseen that BT’s interests in this consultation are not those of any government or political party, ” comments the court, which in this case is in a preliminary role and does not refer to any concrete evidence of the investigation. Further, the court argues in the decision that it has the answers of the Central Election Commission and the Directorate of Money Laundering that prove that the Democratic Party had declared the expenses for lobbying and, moreover, according to the court, Muzin lied.

In the annual Financial Report submitted by the Democratic Party (DP) to the Central Election Commission on 28.02.2018, DP has declared all the party’s income and expenses for 2017, including those for the two contracts with Muzin Capitol Partners and Barnes and Thornsburg, and the payments made to them in the amounts of $100,000 + $25,000. This has also been confirmed by the General Directorate for the Prevention of Money Laundering, which on 03.05.2018 replied to the Prosecutor’s Office that it turns out that the Democratic Party has two more payments in favor of Barnes and Thornsburg. From the information sent by the second level banks, it appears that no Albanian entity has made any payment to the Biniatta Trade company. The amount of 500,000 dollars declared by the registered Nikolas Muzin, on the other hand, is not supported by any documentary evidence, so it does not turn out to be his true statement “argues the Court of Appeal in the decision filed for “Faktoje”.

Who is hiding behind Muzin?

Looking for the roots of Biniatta Trade, the prosecution sent a letter to Scotland on 24 April 2018 in the hope of finding its owners and administrators. Three months later, the justice of the United Kingdom/Scotland replied that the company in question was registered in Edinburgh, Scotland, but that they had no business and no representative that could be interviewed.

Screenshot of Tirana Court’s request to the judicial authorities in Scotland

Screenshot of Tirana Court’s request to the judicial authorities in Scotland

“The company is owned by Asverro Corporation and Liminez Commerce, registered in Belize City.” This information for the Albanian justice includes also some information for four citizens; Gina Sandra Esparon, Molli Rita Roselie, Victoria Valkovskaya and Natasha Radysheva, with the two the latter ones, the Russians, being suspected of hiding behind “Biniatta Trade” since, according to the prosecution, “Binniata Trade” is controlled by the companies “Asverro Corporation” and “Limines Commerce”. The latter two are controlled by the companies Babyonica and KG global Management.

The UK letter states:

Gina Sandra Esparon is involved in at least 30 commercial companies, one of which is Alpha Consultation. This company is under the administration of Natasha Valkovskaya.

This was one more blow by the courts to the prosecution’s investigation, having found no link and no lobbying whatsever.

According to the Letter Rogatory, it turns out that there is no connection between the company “Biniatta Trade” and the Democratic Party, just like the DP has no connection with the other companies with which the Biniatta Trade Company is connected, ” the decision states. As an argument, the courts again bring the Albanian documents that the prosecutors had on the table.

On 03.05.2018, the General Directorate for the Prevention of Money Laundering responded to the Prosecutor’s Office stating that the Democratic Party made a payment in favor of Muzin Capitol Partners in the amount of 25 thousand dollars and two other payments in favor of Barnes and Thornsburg. From the information sent by the second level banks, it appears that no Albanian entity has made any payment to the Biniatta Trade company. These facts coming from state institutions are completely consistent with the position of the Democratic Party.

Considering the letters of the prosecution as equivalent to the original statements found at F.A.R.A., the court declares the one-sidedness of Nikolas Muzin and failure to corroborate his statements.

Regarding the first claim that citizen Nikolas Muzin has declared to F.A.R.A. that the sum of 500,000 USD was paid in cash by the Democratic Party, this argument of the prosecutor is not based on any document or evidence attached to the court file. In none of the statements made by the citizen Nikolas Muzin to F.A.R.A or the interrogations of the American authorities, does this citizen seem to have admitted having received an amount of 500,000 USD in cash from the DP. Regarding the second claim, Lulzim Basha has replied that no action has been carried out up to this specific moment in time, referring to the minutes of statements of the citizen Lulzim Basha, it results that he has replied that “the Democratic Party has not had any contract with any third party, except for those stated and has not undertaken any legal relationship with any third person, except for those stated. To the best of my knowledge, all contracts, incomes received and spent by the Democratic Party have been declared in the financial report submitted to the CEC. Clearly, the statements of the citizen Lulzim Basha do not match the claims of the prosecutor ” declares the Court of Appeal, which confirms the decision of the first instance, that the prosecution went to court with no evidence. This decision is a strong retort to the prosecution, which mentioned in the hearing that they asked Lulzim Basha whether they had reacted civilly or administratively to Muzin for the damage he caused to DP with these statements about the payments, and he had refused to do so. The file explains how the chief democrat Lulzim Basha reiterated that neither he, nor the PD “ were aware of the relationship with the company Biniatta Trade, Asvero Corporation and Liminez Commerce “. Even the general secretary of the Democratic Party denied being aware of anything, but the the payment of 25,000 dollars.

This contract is of a general character and not an electoral nature” – added Ristani, which according to the prosecution contradicted the note in the American Department of Justice, which states that the lobbying contracts had an electoral purpose.

Screenshot of the translated document, provided by F.A.R.A (US Department of Justice)

Screenshot of the translated document, provided by F.A.R.A (US Department of Justice)

The war of prosecutors!

Although during 2019-2020 they raised expectations by carrying out dozens of investigative actions, in the end the prosecutors demanded the trial of Basha, Ristani, and Dervishi only on the charge of forgery, and suspended investigation into charges of money laundering. Even at this point, the three prosecutors Kol Hysenaj, Ervin Karanxha and Gjergj Tako were contradictory. One of them, Kol Hysenaj, did not sign the submission of a request for trial and used this as an argument in the Court of Appeal, considering that the act of his two colleagues was absolutely invalid and that the case should be finalized for both charges. However, the preliminary judge of the first instance by act number 237, dated January 13, 2020, from one charge that demanded the dismissal of the two prosecutors, Karanxha (dismissed from vetting) and Tako, considered the investigation null and void for the other charge as well. Gjergj Tako (later suspended from vetting for lack of skills) appealed the case under the argument that the trial court erred in not considering the evidence presented.

What did the prosecutors say in court?

The declarations of Lulzim Basha in a public television show dated 21.12.2017″ were treated by the court as statements. These public statements should have already been addressed by the Court together with the other evidence filed by the Prosecution. In this particular case, we are dealing with data being entered into the respective form in an inconsistent manner for purposes of hiding the lobbying done by a company administered by a person connected with Russian citizens through business activities. – The defendants have hidden the amount of USD 500,000 that was given in cash by the DP to the private foreign company to lobby in the USA for electoral purposes in favor of this political subject, given that the parliamentary elections would take place after some time in June 2017. Doing so, the defendants have violated Article 23/1, paragraph 4 “On Political Parties” by avoiding tax obligations, as this large amount has not been declared to any public administration body, including the Central Election Commission.  The court erred when it stated that a decision cannot be made on a single piece of evidence, admiting as such the depositions of Nikolas Muzin…… and since the TV show was wrongly found to be circumstantial evidence, it does not count as second evidence closely related to Muzin’s statements. The court was wrong when it stated that the PD form for expenses in the Central Election Commission was not signed by Lulzim Basha, Arben Ristani, not recognizing that every criminal offense committed in cooperation includes several people playing different roles, and where not all are actual/physical executors, but they maw as well be ideators, supporters, or helpers – says prosecutor Tako in his objections to the preliminary hearing at the Court of Appeal. In fact, Tako and Karanxha, who were excluded from the investigation in the preliminary session, were a majority againt a third prosecutor who insisted that the investigations were rushed and therefore demanded the return of the file to the central prosecution body.

Former prosecutor Hysenaj says to the Appeal: “The court should not only at the request of the Prosecutor, but also ex officio establish the invalidity of acts, which were and are absolutely invalid. The investigations have not been fully developed in order for the case prosecutors to make a decision based on the law. Referring to the requests presented by Karanxha-Tako prosecutors, in all their reasoning, they resemble a request to send the case for trial as they consider the charges proven and at the end, through some explicit alogism, they ask for one charge to be dismissed and for the other, to be sent for trial, while both charges are cumulative with each other.  The reasoning used by the prosecutors Karanxha – Tako and accepted by the Court gives priority to the statements of the defendant, believing them to be true, statements that are not confirmed by any other evidence.

Basha’s statements after the accusation

Are you familiar with the decision on bringing charges ? – asked the Albanian prosecutors responsible for the “Russian lobbying” file, Lulzim Basha, leader of the Democratic Party at the time. Sitting, on June 19, 2019, in the defendant’s chair, he was asked in this capacity and stated that he understands the procedure and wants to give explanations without the presence of the defense attorney Ivi Kaso. However, despite his readiness, Lulzim Basha only gave this short answer:

I understand the language from the linguistic point of view, but I do not understand it from the logical and legal point of view and I do not agree with it. Since you have nothing new since my last interview on March 25, 2019, I have nothing new to say either. I demand a complete copy of the file, which I want you to submit in full as required by law today, without any delay, to my legal representative.” In fact, the charges that the representatives of the Albanian prosecution were announcing was the charge of forging seals and stamps. On the same boat of problems with the head of the Democratic Party, were also the former general secretary Arben Ristani and the head of finance of this party, Ilir Dervishi, who, in five months from the day the file was submitted to court, had their victory.

*This content is produced as part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub