Skopje Criminal Court on Tuesday sentenced Agim Ismailovic, Afrim Ismailovic and Alil Demiri to life in prison, finding them guilty of terrorism for committing the murders of five ethnic Macedonians – a crime that shook the nation in 2012 and has continued to cause inter-ethnic tensions and speculation about political meddling.
Only Agim Ismailovic was in the courtroom to hear the retrial verdict, as the two others were tried in absentia, and are believed to be hiding in Kosovo.
Another two defendants, Fejzi Aziri and Haki Aziri, were sentenced to 15 and nine years in prison respectively after they were found guilty of helping the others commit the murders. They had originally been sentenced to life at the first trial.
A sixth defendant, Samir Ljuta, was acquitted of helping to commit the crime after the prosecutor withdrew all charges earlier this year, citing a lack of evidence.
The five Macedonians were killed with automatic rifles and a pistol near Skopje at Orthodox Easter in 2012.
“This was not a regular criminal act, this was a monstrous sadistic killing, taking lives of children who had just stepped into maturity,” presiding judge Ognen Stavrev told the court just before announcing the verdict.
Prosecutor Fatime Fetai said that the sentences were “adequate”.
But defence lawyer Naser Raufi repeated claims made during the trial that the “case was fabricated” and that the evidence were planted by the police.
“We were not surprised by Samir Ljuta’s aquital, but we are surprised that the rest [of the defendants] were not acquitted as well,” Raufi told the court.
Lawyers for the defendants, who pleaded not guilty at the retrial, announced they will appeal to a higher court.
The corpses of victims Filip Slavkovski, Aleksandar Nakjevski, Cvetanco Acevski and Kire Trickovski, all aged between 18 and 20, were discovered near Smilkovci lake near Skopje in 2012. Their bodies had been lined up and appeared to have been executed. The body of 45-year-old Borce Stevkovski was found a short distance away from the others.
The case sparked violent protests in the capital of this multi-ethnic country where Albanians make up around a quarter of the population.
The case was also the subject of speculation that the defendants were framed as scapegoats for the high-profile crime by the authoritarian government at the time, which was led by then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
The defendants were found guilty in the initial trial verdict in June 2014 and given the longest possible sentence for terrorism offences, life in prison. The convictions sparked more protests by ethnic Albanians, and there were violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators on the streets of Skopje.
The defence hoped there might be a breakthrough in the case in 2015, when the then opposition Social Democrats leader Zoran Zaev, who is now prime minister, hinted that some of the thousands of secretly wiretapped conversations that his party was releasing could possibly substantiate claims of a politically-motivated set-up.
A retrial started in May 2018 after the prosecution asked the Supreme Court for the life sentences to be quashed, citing new circumstances and questionable evidence in the case.
But despite the defence’s high hopes, during the retrial, the wiretaps and Zaev’s own testimony in court failed to provide substantial revelations and change the course of the case.