Suspended Eulex prosecutor has emerged as a folk hero to many ordinary Kosovars
- The Guardian, Wednesday 5 November 2014 18.35 GMT
As soon as Maria Bamieh decided to go to the press with allegations of corruption and cover-up, officials from the EU’s rule of law mission began briefing aggressively against her, depicting her as a mediocre prosecutor, bitter and possibly unbalanced at having been made redundant.
“They made her sound like some kind of bag-woman,” said a former colleague.
The campaign was so relentless that it began to rattle Bamieh – a 55-year-old Londoner and the inconvenient woman at the centre of the storm engulfing Pristina and the Brussels foreign policy establishment.
“I heard that I was crazy so often, I keep having to go back to the documents to remind myself that I didn’t make it up,” Bamieh said. Those documents dating to 2012 show evidence of possible corruption among Eulex officials which she assumed would trigger an immediate investigation. Instead, they marked the start of a sharp downward turn in her Eulex career culminating in her abrupt suspension on October 24.
Bamieh’s reaction to her ejection from the prosecutor’s job she held for seven years was defiant to the point of recklessness. In two unrestrained performance on Kosovan television, during which she directly confronted the judge at the centre of the allegations by Skype link, and acted out conversations she had had with superiors, even putting on mock foreign accents, which may have helped enhance the eccentric picture her former employers were trying to paint of her, at least among westerners in Pristina.
However, she has emerged as a folk hero to many ordinary Kosovans, who have grown cynical over the years about Eulex’s promise to clean up their society, and who increasingly see the foreign institution as part of the problem rather than the solution. She also has the respect of several Kosovan and western investigators for her work rate and her success in securing convictions.
“There are really good, honest prosecutors in Eulex who give everything to the job, and Bamieh was one of those,” said a veteran Kosovan investigator.
Eulex officials have pointed to an explosive fallout Bamieh had with a previous employer, the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service, in a bid to portray her as habitually litigious. But the decision in her 2003 case against the CPS for race and sex discrimination and victimisation, was so decisively in her favour that it more accurately conveys the image of a woman who has repeatedly suffered discrimination, confronted it and won.
The Bedford employment tribunal which ruled in her case awarded her £250,000 in damages and agreed with her claim that the CPS had wanted “to rub her face in the dirt” after she began to take action against her employers. The tribunal concluded the service’s conduct towards her fell below the standard “we would have expected of a corner shop”.
Bamieh, a chain-smoking 55 year-old, says she spent much of her life feeling like a misfit. Born in Delhi to a half-Indian, half-British mother and a Lebanese father, she spent her early years moving from one country to another according to her father’s assignments as a journalist for the Middle Eastern press. He died when she was young and after a short stay in Gibraltar, Bamieh and her mother arrived to Britain when she was ten.
At her Croydon comprehensive school she stood out for having a somewhat posh accent learned in expatriate schools abroad but she quickly adjusted to the London accent she has now.
“I learned to adapt and survive. I became a street kid,” she said.
Her first career choice was a nurse like her mother, but she soon discovered that she was a hypochondriac and felt dramatically unsuited to the job. So she studied for the bar, and in a time when comprehensive-educated minority women were sparse in the field, she charmed her way into her first pupillage by walking from one barristers’ chambers to another, introducing herself.
Bamieh says she has grown to treat Kosovo as home in the past seven years, getting to know more locally hired colleagues than expatriates, but she insists that she is now ready, if necessary, to go home to Hendon.
“I’ll look after my garden and draw my pension and be quite happy,” she said.