Environmental activists Shpresa Loshaj and Adriatik Gacaferi are facing baseless defamation lawsuits which are designed to intimidate and silence them, Amnesty International said. The organization is calling on KelKos Energy, which operates hydropower plants in a protected natural area in western Kosovo*, to give up on the case.
Kosovar authorities must ensure that environmental defenders can express their concerns without fear of reprisal, said Jelena Sesar, Western Balkans researcher at Amnesty International. The organization condemned KelKos Energy’s defamation lawsuits against Shpresa Loshaj and Adriatik Gacaferi and stressed they are bravely standing up for their communities and their environment.
The firm is a subsidiary of Austria-based Kelag-Kärntner Elektrizitäts and Kelag International. It owns four hydropower plants in Kosovo’s west: Lumbardhi 1 (8 MW), Lumbardhi 2 (7 MW), Belaja (7.5 MW) and Deçani (9.5 MW).
SLAPPs are tool for censoring criticism
Amnesty International analyzed legal documents and other materials relating to the cases and concluded that the lawsuits bear all the hallmarks of strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAPPs). They are increasingly being used by governments and corporations around the world to censor criticism and discourage others from speaking out.
“Shpresa Loshaj and Adriatik Gacaferi have campaigned tirelessly to raise concerns about the environmental impact of hydropower plants in the protected Deçan region,” Sesar added.
Having observed massive excavation in the area, frequent landslides and parched riverbeds in places where water was once abundant, the activists questioned the legality of the operating licenses that were issued by the Kosovar authorities to KelKos Energy and other companies, Amnesty International pointed out in its statement.
KelKos demands apology from Loshaj on top of EUR 100,000 in damages
According to environmentalists, the government failed to assess the environmental risk of the plants, and had failed to consult the communities living in the villages where they operate – as required by law.
KelKos sued Gacaferi over a Facebook post in which he criticized the company’s operations, demanding a retraction of the post and EUR 10,000 in damages
In June 2020 the company accused Loshaj of deliberately trying to damage the company’s reputation with “untrue statements.” It demanded EUR 100,000 in damages, as well as a public apology and refrain from stating “untrue facts” about the company. In January 2020, KelKos sued Gacaferi over a Facebook post in which he criticized the company’s operations, demanding a retraction of the post and EUR 10,000 in damages.
Both cases are still pending in courts in Kosovo*.
Institutions failed their communities, environment
“This is not just about rivers. It is about our institutions too – they failed to protect the environment, they failed to consult with the communities and they failed to enforce the law. The fact that no one was willing to speak up made me even more determined to speak out about hydropower plants,” Loshaj said.
The Ombudsperson Institution, Kosovo Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Environment all pointed to irregularities in small hydropower plant projects
Numerous public institutions – including the Ombudsman Institution, Kosovo Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Environment – have found or investigated irregularities in licensing procedures around hydropower plants operated by Kelkos Energy and others, as well as a lack of transparency and possible irreversible negative impact on the environment.
Although the findings of these reports have been made public, KelKos Energy has only pursued defamation lawsuits against the two individuals.
The lawsuits illustrate the growing trend of powerful corporations and public officials misusing the justice system to intimidate human rights defenders, and shield themselves from public scrutiny, said Jelena Sesar.