On September 8, 2021, a hospital fire in Tetovo, North Macedonia killed 14 people and injured 10 others. Two years later, hundreds of citizens joined relatives and friends of the victims in a protest denouncing impunity, corruption, and the failure to make officials accountable for the incident.
The protest and the anniversary of the fire coincided with the country's Independence Day celebration.
Today, while the whole country is celebrating, we gathered on the site of the former modular hospital in memory of the members of our families that burned to death two years ago here.
Most of the deceased victims were hospital patients while two of them were family members who were present in the hospital rooms at the time the fire broke out.
After two years, the court proceedings conducted by Tetovo Basic Court in the first instance concluded with two suspended sentences, one fine and two acquittals. None of the convicted persons would go to prison unless they commit a new crime.
The sentence has yet to be enforced since the court decision is under appeal. Two directors of the Tetovo Clinical Hospital, Florin Besimi and Artan Etemi, were charged for the criminal act of “grave crimes against general safety”; while the medical doctor Boban Vuchevski was charged for the criminal act of “not acting according to health regulations during an epidemic.” The Public Health Institution Clinical Hospital Tetovo was convicted for the criminal acts of “causing a general danger” and “not acting according to health regulations during an epidemic.”
Meanwhile, two years after the tragic event, the Public Prosecutor's Office is still working on pre-investigation procedure regarding the tender for public procurement of the infrastructure for the modular hospitals built to accommodate the treatment needs of infected patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In October 2021, it published a report by the Department for Criminal Investigations which determined that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit in a faulty electrical extension cord connected to a defibrillator machine. It was suspected that the cable, which at the time was charging a mobile phone and another device, overheated and caused the fire.
The prosecution only filed charges against the managers and doctors of the hospital. Meanwhile, the company that built the hospital and state officials who approved the construction faced no accountability. There's no public information if the pre-investigation would lead to a court case that would examine the issue of the possible flaws related to the unsafe construction of the hospital.
Relatives of the victims expressed their disdain against the prosecutors:
Corruption kills! All politicians speak about integration into the European Union, but fail to respect the human lives. 14 fatalities, zero days prison time [for the responsible individuals]. Judiciary and Prosecutor's Office are part of and defenders of the organized crime, evil, (and the) oligarchy.
Protesters demanded the reopening of court proceedings related to the case, reexamination of the outcome of the preliminary hearing held in Tetovo court, as well as the dismissal of the Chief State Public Prosecutor Ljubomir Jovevski and other public prosecutors involved in the investigation of the incident.
Ibin Emshiu, who lost his father and brother in the fire, mentioned the continuing demand for justice:
„И денес како и пред две години, се уште ни се свежи во сеќавање нивните врисоци и плачот, беа изгорени пред нашите очи и бевме немоќни да ги спасиме. Тие денес не се меѓу нас само затоа што не се почитуваа градежните стандарди. Се обидоа да не исплашат и замолчат вреднувајќи ги нивните животи со неколку илјади евра, а се обидоа да ги сокријат вистинските виновници за оваа трагедија. Црниот чад што го прекри градот таа ноќ, денеска ја покрива правдата на оваа земја.“
Today, just like two years ago, we still have fresh memories of the screams and cries of the victims who burned in front of our eyes, while we were helpless to save them. Today, they are not among us because the construction standards were disrespected. [The authorities] tried to intimidate and silence us by valuing the lives of our loved ones with several thousand euros [given by the state to the families], while attempting to hide the true culprits for this tragedy. The black smoke that covered the city that night, today covers the justice of this whole country.
Emshiu emphasized that the trust in the judiciary in North Macedonia is “at zero level,” while the lives of citizens become hostage to political deals and granting of state tenders by officials who seek profit through illegal means.
The joint statement of the fire victims’ families was read on the location of the former Tetovo modular hospital. The protest march continued through the streets of Tetovo, which is the biggest city in the western part of the country. The final destination of the procession was the Basic Court in Tetovo.
Citizens who joined the protest held banners which carried the following slogans: “Prosecution + Judiciary = Criminal Conspiracy”, “Send corrupt prosecutors to ONCOLOGY”, “Justice is Fake News Here”, “32 Years of [Independent] State = 32 Years of Corruption,” “No to selective justice”, “Justice instead of trade-offs”, “No Justice, No Stability”, and “Responsibility now, justice forever”.
The “Send corrupt prosecutors to ONCOLOGY” banner reflects the outrage about the reported misuse of cancer treatment medicine at another hospital, the University Clinic for Oncology in Skopje. Some employees of this clinic are suspected of allowing terminal patients to die, while reselling the medicines that could have had saved them; and also for listing deceased patients as alive in order to be able to purchase more medicines to resell.
The “Justice instead of trade-offs” banner reflects the public outrage at the government and parliament decision to swiftly amend the Criminal Code on September 6 with provisions that lower the length of court sentences for high level corruption, and enabling extensions of statute of limitations that would effectively discontinue a number of ongoing court cases related to “abuse of office” criminal acts. Ethnic Albanian opposition parties raised suspicions that the government had “made a deal” with former prime minister and current fugitive Nikola Gruevski so that he and many former officials could avoid prosecution and jail in return for securing support of MPs of ethnic Macedonian opposition party VMRO-DPMNE for the upcoming constitutional changes needed for integration into the European Union.