Montenegro’s Appeal Court overturns verdicts in coup plot case
Montenegro’s Appeal Court said on February 5 it has cancelled verdicts in the trial dubbed the “Trial of the Century” in which 13 Montenegrins, Russians and Serbs were found guilty of plotting a coup to coincide with the October 2016 general election.
Among those sentenced were Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, leaders of the Democratic Front (DF), which is part of Montenegro’s new ruling coalition. The decision comes amid an initiative by the coalition to remove chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic, who led the investigation and the trial in the coup plot case.
The Appeal Court said it annulled the sentences due to “significant violations of criminal procedure, because of which neither factual nor legal conclusions could not be accepted in the first-instance verdict, as well as in relation to the existence of guilt for those acts”. The Appeal Court has ruled that the first instance court retry the case but with a different jury.
In May 2019, the higher court of Montenegro found the two opposition leaders as well as two Russians and several Serbs and Montenegrins guilty of plotting a coup and sentenced them to jail in the first instance.
Prosecutors said the plot was intended to help the pro-Russian opposition Democratic Front to seize power in Montenegro on the night of the October 2016 general election and either imprison or assassinate the country’s then prime minister (now president) Milo Djukanovic, with the help of Russian security services members and Serbian paramilitaries.
Two Russians who were accused of organising the plot, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, who are believed to be members of the Russian security services, GRU, were given the heaviest sentences of 15 and 12 years in prison in absentia. Mandic and Knezevic got five years in prison each.
Former Serbian police commander Bratislav Dikic was sentenced to eight years in prison, while two other Serbian citizens, Nemanja Ristic and Predrag Bogicevic, received sentences of eight and seven years in absentia.
Six other defendants received shorter jail term terms. The 14th indictee, Ananije Nikic, who received asylum in Russia in 2018, will be tried in absentia in a separate case.
Since December 2020, the DF has been part of the new ruling coalition, which has tabled to parliament legislation changes that would scrap the special prosecution, removing Katnic, who is associated with the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) that previously ruled Montenegro for three decades.
According to the proposed amendments, the special prosecution should be replaced by a prosecution for organised crime and corruption. The new ruling coalition has pledged to focus on the fight against corruption and organised crime as Montenegro had been criticised for years for the lack of progress in that area.
In the proposal for legislation changes, the ruling coalition says that the current special prosecution has failed to meet expectations in the fight against corruption and has a very limited scope.
After the legislation changes were announced, the head of Delegation of the European Commission to Montenegro Oana Cristina Popa warned that Podgorica should advance, not reverse the implementation of judicial reform.
“In order to further advance on its EU path and meet the interim benchmarks for chapter 23 of its accession negotiations, Montenegro needs to make further progress on rule of law reforms, including to advance and not reverse the implementation of the judicial reform,” Popa wrote on Twitter.
“Montenegro already has the bodies & mechanisms to ensure judicial & prosecutorial independence & accountability. We encourage Montenegro to make consistent use of these mechanisms & build on the work done to further develop results in fight against corruption & organised crime,” she added.