News 17 Jul 17

Defence Eyes Breakthrough in Macedonia NATO Killing Case

Ethnic Albanian villagers accused of planting a mine that killed two NATO soldiers in Macedonia in 2003 hope that the Special Prosecution will drop all charges.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
The location where a landmine killed NATO soldiers and a civilian in 2003. Archive photo.

Defence lawyers for 11 residents of the north-eastern village of Sopot, who are being retried for allegedly planting a mine in 2003 that killed two Polish NATO soldiers and one Macedonian civilian, have expressed hope that the Special Prosecution, SJO will drop all charges at the next court session scheduled for September 18.

“I think that the SJO would drop the charges in this case at the first session [as] it was already proven by the wiretapped conversations [between former senior Macedonian officials, on tapes released by their opponents] that it was a politically motivated set-up,” said Naser Raufi, a lawyer for the defendants.

The SJO, which was set up in 2015 to investigate alleged high-level crimes which came to light in the wiretapped conversations which were released earlier that year, formally asked to take over the case on November 4, 2016.

After much deliberation, it finally got the case this month. “The Prosecution for Organised Crime and Corruption handed over the Sopot case to the SJO on July 5. After reviewing the case, the SJO decided on July 10 that the case falls under its jurisdiction,” the SJO said last Thursday.

The defence had hoped all along that the SJO would take over the case because it was mentioned by top officials in the wiretaps. Defence lawyers hoped the tapes would shed new light on the crime.

In one of the wiretapped conversations, what were alleged to be the voices of the then Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska and then Secret Police chief, Saso Mijalkov, could be heard talking about the case.

In the conversation, Jankuloska allegedly suggests to Mijalkov that then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski should be consulted about how to proceed with this sensitive case and both seem to acknowledge that the conviction of the villagers, who were originally found guilty in 2010, rests on very thin evidence.

It is not excluded that more wiretapped conversations which are now in the hands of the SJO may reveal even more details about the case because in 2015, the then opposition released only a small portion of them.

The mine explosion in Sopot happened in 2003 when Macedonia was still recovering from the 2001 armed conflict between ethnic Albanian insurgents and the security forces.

After a prolonged trial, the 12 defendants were originally sentenced in March 2010 to a total of 150 years in jail, but after Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian political parties complained, a parliamentary commission decided that there were some omissions during the trial.

The parliamentary commission's decision rested on a claim by one of the defendants, Ramadan Bajrami, that he confessed after being tortured by police.

This resulted in the court ordering a new trial, which was originally supposed to start in 2011.

By 2016, one of the original 12 defendants had died.

The country’s ethnic Albanian political parties have criticised the Sopot case and several others as examples of injustice against Albanians in Macedonia.

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