News 18 Jun 14

Macedonia Awaits Verdict in Ethnically-Charged Murder Trial

The verdict in the trial of a group of alleged Albanian extremists, accused of killing five Macedonians in a case that sparked ethnic tensions and violent protests, is expected soon.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

The defendants in court.

The criminal court in Skopje said that the verdict will be delivered on June 30 after it was unexpectedly postponed on Wednesday because the trial judge fell ill.

Fears have been raised that there could be another outbreak of inter-ethnic unrest after the judgement in the high-profile murder case, which has been dubbed ‘Monster’ by police.

Agim Ismailovic, Fejzi Aziri, Rami Sejdi, Haki Aziri and Sami Ljuta are on trial for alleged terrorism. The two other suspects in the case, Alil Demiri and Afrim Ismailovic, are in prison in Kosovo, where they are serving jail terms for the illegal possession of weapons.

According to the charges, the two fugitives, Alil Demiri and Afrim Ismailovic, killed five Macedonians with automatic rifles near Skopje during Orthodox Easter in 2012, while the other five men provided logistical support.

The prosecution has demanded life sentences for the men.

Prosecutor Gordana Geskovska told the court at the beginning of this month that the murder was an act of terror carried out in order to provoke ethnic strife between the Macedonian majority and the large Albanian minority.

Geskovska said that message delivered by the killers was: “We shoot on Maundy Thursday so that you will have a bloody Easter. We shoot at young males in order to destroy your faith and nation and the future of the country.”

The defence has called for the group’s acquittal.

Defence lawyer Naser Raufi told the court in his closing arguments on Thursday that the seven accused had nothing to do with the murder. He dismissed prosecution claims that the defendants were terrorists and raised doubts about the forensic material presented by the prosecution.

“How can the prosecution tell who used which weapons? There is no ‘paraffin glove’ [a method that investigates traces of gunfire gases on the hands of the suspects], no weapons, no DNA. Was the prosecutor psychic? Nobody saw the murder,” Raufi said.

The defendants in their closing statements to the court also said they were innocent.

“I refute the accusations. I don't feel guilty. When we were detained by the police we were beaten and molested... I swear to god that I have not committed such a criminal act,” said Agim Ismailovic.

“For me this is a completely staged case right from the start. I completely reject any guilt over the murder... The prosecution did not offer a single piece of evidence that we are a terrorist group and that we wanted to kill the young Macedonians,” said Fejzi Aziri.

The corpses of Filip Slavkovski, Aleksandar Nakjevski, Cvetanco Acevski and Kire Trickovski, all aged between 18 and 20, were discovered on April 12, 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.

News of the murder raised ethnic tensions, after groups of ethnic Macedonians staged protests, some of which turned violent, blaming the killings on members of the country’s large Albanian minority community.

During a recent visit to Macedonia, the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, Astrid Thors, said she was worried that the trial could spark further tension.

“We will recommend to political leaders to make a joint call for restraint and for calm in order to avoid any disturbances,” Thors said.

But in the days before the verdict, no senior political leader has made any appeal for calm.

In 2001, Macedonia went through a brief armed conflict between ethnic Albanian insurgents and the security forces. The conflict ended the same year with the signing of a peace deal that increased Albanian rights.

Albanians make up a quarter of the country’s 2.1 million population.

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