LL.M. students study U.S. laws to help bring legal reforms to Kosovo

Group photo of students who study the laws to help bring legal reforms to Kosovo

Coming of age in Serbian-controlled Kosovo, Kreshnik Radoniqi risked everything for his education.

To be taught by Albanian teachers, Radoniqi gathered with just a few other students in private houses instead of traditional school campuses. To avoid detection, they had to move from house to house, never staying too long in one place. Had Serbian authorities discovered his independent education, he would have faced beatings, confiscation of his education materials, and possibly worse.

But the risks were worth it, Radoniqi said.

“We didn’t want to be occupied. We wanted freedom,” Radoniqi said. “We struggled for education but we achieved that.”

Serbian law was no less systematically oppressive to Albanians than the educational system. But when the Serbian occupiers were finally driven out in 1999, the legal system was left in a shambles that is still struggling for reform.

That’s why Radoniqi and two fellow Kosovars – Shqipdon Fazliu and Valon Kurdaj – are taking part in a unique program for Kosovo legal professionals at Wake Forest University School of Law.

“We are still fighting for that, we are still trying to improve” the court system in Kosovo, Fazliu said. “That is why we came here.”

The three men – Radoniqi and Kurdaj are judges, Fazliu a prosecutor – said bearing witness to the injustices and human right abuses that Albanians faced during the 10-year occupation motivated them to enter the legal field.

“That made me think that in the future, I could become a lawyer and treat every person equally and without discrimination,” Fazliu said.

Kosovo – on the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe – is home to 1.8 million people. About 92 percent of them are Albanians, according to U.S. estimates.

The Kosovar men are here for one academic year and will earn LL.M. degrees on Monday, May 20. Two more jurists from Kosovo are scheduled to arrive for the fall semester.

“The idea is they’ll take this experience and education and take it back to Kosovo, to be in a better position to see some of the reforms that country is desperately trying to keep in place,” said Richard Schneider, associate dean for international affairs at the School of Law. The program at Wake Forest is the only one in the country focused on providing further legal education for Kosovo attorneys.

Part of the problem in Kosovo is the sheer newness of the legal system, which has been in place for fewer than 15 years. What’s in place now, Radoniqi said, sprang from a hodgepodge of local rules as well as laws cobbled together from the United Nations’ Mission in Kosovo. Laws about who holds property are somewhat uneven because the country – once part of communist Yugoslavia – had been under a system in which property was held by the state.

“Changing from a social system to a Democratic system is a big challenge,” Radoniqi said.

There is also wide variability in the country in terms of sentencing guidelines. Because there are no plea bargains or other legal expediencies that we have here, there is a huge backlog of cases, Radoniqi said, with some non-serious cases taking up to two years for resolution.

Having a chance to see how the courts operate in the U.S. will help them bring reforms in Kosovo, Fazliu said.

The program started with discussions between the School of Law and U.S. Attorney’s Office for Eastern North Carolina, based in Raleigh. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. “Bobby” Higdon  (’85, JD ’89) had made several trips to Kosovo as pat of a federal Department of Justice effort to help the nation develop its court system. As part of his efforts, Higdon brought the three Kosovo attorneys to Winston-Salem, where Schneider told them about the LL.M. program. After the three men finish their degrees, they will return to Kosovo with the goal of reforming its fledgling system.

The federal government is helping the Wake Forest program by finding and screening potential applicants from Kosovo, Schneider said.

The Kosovo students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program, Schneider said. Other law students get a chance to learn from them.

“They’re sharing things that American law students won’t hear anywhere else…It’s adding a huge amount of depth to the discussion,” Schneider said. “It becomes a real cross-cultural, cross-legal experience for everyone involved. They’re able to contribute a kind of raw, visceral experience with criminal justice issues.”