By Shqipe Gjocaj
PRISTINA, Nov 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The way she tells it, she was a familiar face at the police station in southern Kosovo where she often sought sanctuary from her violent husband.
She was in her early 20s when the marriage descended into a nightmare of abuse. Among other torture, he taunted her with a pistol which she took to the police, fearing for her life.
"The policeman who dealt with me happened to be my husband's friend," said the woman, now 31, who could not be identified for legal reasons.
"He told me that if I were his wife, I wouldn't have been able to bring the gun because he would have killed me first."
In the end, it was she who killed her husband. She cut his throat with a razor and is now serving 12 years for murder.
The woman is one of 17 female inmates jailed at the Lipjan Correctional Centre for Women and Minors just south of Pristina for murder - six of whom were convicted for killing their partners, some after years of abuse.
Another woman, 24, was jailed for 13 years for murder. She said she shot her husband after he started attacking their little girl.
"I didn't want to kill him .. I just wanted to scare him," said the woman, one of several inmates interviewed in the jail after prison authorities allowed access for interviews and to their records on the condition the women were not named.
Concerns are growing among lawyers and rights activists that victims of domestic violence in Kosovo are often at the mercy of a justice system that fails to protect them, with Kosovo cut off from key instruments of European justice.
The full extent of domestic violence in Kosovo is not known as rights groups say crime statistics only hint at the scale of abuse behind closed doors in the country of 1.8 million people.
In 2016, police received 870 reports of domestic violence, mostly against women, leading to 243 arrests, according to the Directorate of Police in Community and Prevention.
But the Agency for Gender Equality estimates up to 90 percent of domestic violence cases go unreported.
A survey in 2015 by the Kosova Women's Network, an umbrella group of women's rights organisations, found 68 percent of women had suffered domestic violence in their lifetime and more than 20 percent of male and female respondents thought it was sometimes acceptable for a husband to beat his wife.
Campaigners for women's rights said a key problem was the double standards toward violent crime by men and women that shape the priorities of overburdened police, prosecutors and judges - and the lack of European justice to address this.
For Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is unique in not having access to key instruments of European justice due to its unresolved political status. It is not recognised by some nations including Serbia, Russia and China.
"We call it the black hole of Europe," said Hilmi Jashari, Kosovo's independent ombudsman. "Kosovo is actually the only country where citizens can't go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg."
Kovoso has been unable to join the Council of Europe, which upholds civil and political rights across 47 member states. The court in Strasbourg, France, is the council's arbiter.
Kosovo's constitution states that its laws should be interpreted in line with rulings by the European Court.
But rights activists and legal experts say since Strasbourg has no power to impose penalties on Kosovo, the constitution rarely affects decisions made on the ground, such as how police and prosecutors act on domestic abuse and whether judges issue restraining orders.
WOMEN IN POVERTY
"Kosovo doesn't have the capacity to address domestic violence - neither to protect people from it nor to investigate it," said Tahire Haxholli, head of the Kosovo police unit that deals with domestic violence and child abuse.
"It's a matter of government. There must be a solid budget to help Kosovo police do their job well."
The justice ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Fatmire Haliti, a lawyer for the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims, said a law giving the president discretionary powers to grant parole should be used to counter overly harsh sentences for battered women driven to violence.
Since 2010, Kosovo's Law on Pardon has benefitted 86 men and five women convicted of various crimes.
"When you look into the women's profiles, you see the domestic abuse they suffered, the horrible circumstances they were forced to live in, and the motives behind their criminal deeds," Haliti said.
Two high-profile cases underlined the state's failure to protect women from prolonged abuse and ignited debate.
In 2011, Diana Kastrati, a 27-year-old university student from Pristina, sought a restraining order after her husband repeatedly threatened her. A judge denied her request.
Three weeks later, her husband shot her and fled. He is thought to be living in Spain, lawyers for Kastrati's family say, but as Kosovo is not a member of Interpol, it has no bilateral extradition agreement with Spain to get him back.
Meanwhile, Zejnepe Bytyqi Berisha, 39, from a village near the southern town of Suhareka, endured 16 years of violence at the hands of her husband, Nebi Bytyqi. Her reports to the police went unheeded and in October 2015 he stabbed her to death.
Nebi Bytyqi was charged with aggravated murder which carries a maximum jail sentence of life but he got 12 years. An appeal this August saw the appeals court increase this to 17 years.
Edi Gusia, chief executive of the Agency for Gender Equality, part of the prime minister's office, said the economic and social problems faced by women in Kosovo exacerbated the problem, leaving them powerless to walk out on abusive partners.
About 18 percent of women in Kosovo are living below the poverty line while unemployment among young women is more than 60 percent, the Kosovo Agency for Statistics said.
"They're unemployed and economically dependent, since they don't have inheritance rights from their parents. Without a home, they remain in a cycle of violence and in some cases that has resulted in deaths," Gusia said.
(Reporting by Shqipe Gjocaj, Writing by Tim Large, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
The story was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.