As the ten-year anniversary of Azem Hajdari’s assassination approaches, the killing of the philosophy student who led the democratic movement in Albania is being fanned into memory by US efforts to deport the brother of an eyewitness to the crime.
It was the evening of Sept. 12, 1998 when the legendary moral leader of the Albanian democratic movement was at the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Albania, in the capital city of Tirana. Azem Hajdari had been leader of the student movement widely credited for toppling the Communist regime in Albania. He had been the Democratic Party’s first chairman. And he was serving his fourth term as a member of the Albanian parliament. At party headquaters, Hajdari and his personal bodyguard, Besim Cerja were chatting with a volunteer doorkeeper, Xhemal Neza; and with Xhemal’s cousin Zenel.
“Hajdari was a man of great integrity and we respected him very much,” recalls Xhemal Neza in an affidavit of April 2007. “Shortly before 9:30 p.m. the telephone rang and Hajdari spoke to the caller. When he hung up the telephone, he told us, ‘We have to leave immediately,’ because Izet Haxhia had told us to come at once. Haxhia was the personal body guard of Sali Berisha, who had become president of Albania in 1992. Berisha was the main leader of the Party on 12 September 1998. I personally heard Hajdari say the call was from Haxhia.”
“I opened the door,” continues the affidavit of the volunteer doorkeeper, “and Hajdari, Cerja, and my cousin Zenel Neza went out and got into Hajdari’s car, which was inside the walled compound. Cerja was driving; Hajdari was in the front passenger seat, and Zenel Neza was in the back seat. While I was closing the gate the car traveled out and turned right onto the street; after it moved about four meters, a black Mercedes 500 with Vlora license plates moved up and blocked its path. There was a light gray Jeep SUV just behind the Mercedes.”
“At about 9:30 p.m. Hajdari was shot. News reports saying he was killed at 10:00 p.m. are mistaken. I was about four meters from Hajdari when they killed him. I saw the persons who fired the shots and saw them pull the triggers. There were four assassins in the two cars.” Three of the assassins got out of their cars carrying automatic rifles. They were all wearing police uniforms. Xhemal recognized them as people he had grown up with.
Hajdari and his personal body guard were killed on the spot. In the back seat, Zenel Neza was critically wounded. Xhemal called his brother Rrustem, and together with cousins Skender and Gani they managed to drive Zenel to a doctor and then to safety in a nearby town.
The next day there was a demonstration. Police fired on the crowd, killing several people, and knocking Xhemal unconscious. The day after that, there was yet another demonstration. And this time, Rrustem Neza told the crowd of “about a thousand people” what Xhemal had seen on the night of the assassination and who the killers were. Xhemal went into hiding, moving every week. During one of the moves, his driver, cousin Skender, was killed.
“The police blasted Skender’s car with gunfire and began searching for me, but fortunately I had run in the opposite direction.” Meanwhile, cousin Gani was also killed. Of the four men who were part of the fateful rescue mission for Zenel Neza, two were dead. Zenel managed to escape the country. The other two, brothers Rrustem and Xhemal, eventually fled to Texas.
When the Neza brothers arrived in the USA, Xhemal was granted asylum and legal residency, but his brother Rrustem’s application for asylum was denied. According to court documents filed in Rrustem’s behalf, the immigration judge for Rrustem’s case simply did not believe Rrustem’s story. Xhemal testified at Rrustem’s hearing, but the judge wanted some corroborating evidence. Said the judge: “one would assume that his [the cousin's] killing would have been reported in some newspaper in Albania which the respondent could have brought to court.”
As Rrustem’s present attorney John Wheat Gibson points out in this week’s brief to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the newspaper story about Gani Neza’s killing is available to anyone who can Google “Gani Neza.” Who knows why Rrustem’s former attorney did not present that newspaper article, or why the judge did not believe the brothers. Rrustem has been appealing for asylum ever since.
When they lived in Albania, the Neza brothers shared family land where there was gold and chrome. In Texas they opened up a pizza shop in the small college town of Nacogdoches. Things were quiet and apparently prosperous enough for them until they put in for a license to sell beer. An affidavit from the preparer of that license states that, “I never asked Xhemal or Rrustem about citizenship. I just assumed.”
On Jan. 18, 2007 Rrustem Neza was arrested for claiming to be a citizen on a beer license application, but he was never charged. In February, he was transferred to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who locked him up at the Rolling Plains Prison of Haskell, Texas. In order to get out of prison he would only need to agree to go back to Albania. But he decided being alive in Haskell was better than being dead in Albania, so he waited in prison, separated from his wife and two children.
In June 2007, President Bush visited Albania, where the triumph of the Albanian Democratic Party was imaged via color photographs of Bush and Berisha smiling, waving, joined at the hip.
In late August 2007, ICE officials retrieved Rrustem from Haskell and forced him to board an Albania-bound airplane in Dallas. He screamed for his life. ICE was forced to abort the deportation, so they threw him back in prison.
On Sept. 4, 2007 attorney Gibson shared an email about Rrustem’s case, which was posted under his byline at the Texas Civil Rights Review. From there, the story went around the world to an Albanian tabloid, Korrieri. “WITNESS COMES FROM AMERICA,” shouted the headline of Sept. 5. “Rrustem Neza is considered by Texas Civil Rights Review one of those who made public the names of the people who killed Mr. Hajdari on 12 September 1998 in Tirana. While in Albania, there are calls for truth in the investigation process, witnesses and all the people connected to the case are still battling in the courts.”
On Sept. 11, 2007 Rrustem Neza made headlines in the Dallas Morning News as the “Albanian who screamed himself off plane.” Completely unembarrassed by all of this, the heart of ICE was hardened, and on Oct. 1, US officials asked for a federal court order to “dope and deport” Mr. Neza, so that he could be rendered pharmaceutically incapable of screaming the next time they put him on a plane.
Yet by this time, finally, the patent absurdity of America’s treatment of Rrustem Neza attracted the public attention of conservative East Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, who on Oct. 23 penned an editorial for the Lufkin paper, calling Mr. Neza’s treatment “intolerable.” On Nov. 1, Gohmert introduced two personal bills in Congress in Mr. Neza’s behalf.
During the holiday season of 2007, ICE continued to keep Mr. Neza in Haskell prison, separated from his wife and two children.
Finally, on leap day 2008, three days after a Congressional committee took up Rep. Gohmert’s personal bills, Rrustem Neza was allowed to go back to his wife and two children after 13 months of imprisonment.
In March 2008, Rep. Gohmert announced that Mr. Neza’s deportation would be “stayed” until March 2009, the Lufkin paper editorialized in Mr. Gohmert’s behalf, and federal authorities announced that the “dope and deport” efforts had been officially “closed.”
All of which brings us well into the summer of 2008. To date, the federal government of the USA is still refusing to grant Rrustem Neza an asylum hearing where attorney Gibson can submit corroborating evidence that Gani and Skender Neza are, in sad fact, as dead as the respected leader of the Albanian democratic uprising, Azem Hajdari. And if they were all gunned down in cold blood, doesn’t Rrustem Neza deserve to be believed when he says that deporting him to Albania would place him in reasonable fear for his life?