Montenegro overturns coup verdict for two Russians, 11 others

Appeals court says 2019 verdict was marred by violations of criminal law and new trial should be held.

MONTENEGRO-POLITICS-COUP-TRIAL Montenegro opposition leaders Andrija Mandic (C) and Milan Knezevic (R) attend a news conference after being convicted by a Montenegrin court in Podgorica
Andrija Mandic (centre) and Milan Knezevic (right), leaders of the pro-Russian Democratic Front were convicted by a Montenegrin court in 2019 and given a five-year sentence [File: Savo Prelevic/AFP]

A Montenegrin court has overturned the convictions of two Russians and 11 others over an attempted coup against the pro-Western government in 2016 and has ordered a retrial.

On Friday, the appeals court said the 2019 verdict was marred by violations of the criminal law and that a new trial should be held before different presiding judges.

The original verdict handed five-year prison sentences to two then-opposition politicians from the Democratic Front, a pro-Serb party which is now in the ruling majority.

The politicians, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, were accused of being part of a “criminal organisation” plotting to topple then-prime minister Milo Djukanovic and halt his plans to bring Montenegro into NATO.

A former Serbian police general also received an eight-year sentence while the heaviest sentences, 12 and 15 years, went to two alleged Russian spies tried in absentia.

The verdict said the group was organised by former Russian military intelligence operatives.

After the defendants appealed, Podgorica’s appeals court announced in a statement on Friday it had “revoked the first-instance verdict”, citing “significant violations of the provisions of the criminal procedure”.

The ruling comes weeks after a government seeking closer ties with allies Serbia and Russia took over from a long-ruling pro-Western administration in the small Balkan state.

The previous Montenegrin administration led the country to independence from Serbia in 2006 and defied historic ally Moscow in 2017 to join NATO.

In the 2016 poll, the Democratic Front was the main rival against Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), leading critics to accuse the country’s longtime leader of fabricating the case to boost his political fortunes.

At the time, Moscow rejected the allegations of its involvement as “absurd”, while the US State Department hailed the sentence as a “victory for the rule of law” against “Russia’s brazen attempt to undermine the sovereignty of an independent European nation”.

While Djukanovic is now president, his DPS party lost control of the parliament in the 2020 polls, sending them into the opposition for the first time in decades.

It was not immediately clear when the new trial would start.

Source: News Agencies