News 02 Nov 17

Macedonia Gives Kumanovo Gunmen Heavy Jail Terms

The Skopje Criminal Court on Thursday gave life sentences to seven of the 37 ethnic Albanian defendants accused of involvement in a two-day shootout with police in Kumanovo in 2015, while most of the rest got long jail terms.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje
 
There was a heavy police presence in front of Skopje Criminal Court for the verdict. Photo: MIA.

A Skopje court on Thursday gave life sentences to seven of the 37 defendants charged with taking part in a bloody two-day gun battle with police in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo in May 2105.

Thirteen people were sentenced to 40 years in prison, six got 20 years, one got 18 years, two got 14 years, two got 13 years and two were sentenced to 12 years. Four of the 37 defendants were acquitted.

The defendants were found guilty of terrorism, either for participation in or assistance of a two-day shootout with Macedonian security forces that left 18 people dead, including eight police, in the town.

Special police were deployed around and inside the court building for the issue of the verdicts in this ethnically charged case.

The atmosphere in court was also tense. Only three defendants were allowed to hear their verdicts in person. The judge ordered the others to be removed due to their loud protests.

“We are not terrorists, we are the NLA [National Liberation Army]. The terrorists attacked parliament while you attacked us!” one of the defendants shouted before being removed from the court.

He was referring to the April 27 attack on the Macedonian parliament by supporters of the former ruling VMRO DPMNE party.

The defendants will have a chance to lodge appeals before the Court of Appeals.

At the last hearing in late September, lawyers for the defendants, in their closing statements, insisted that the evidence against their clients was insufficient and circumstantial and said that they should be acquitted.

Some of the defendants who had admitted participation in the armed clashes with police in Kumanovo maintained that they were victims of a politically motivated set-up.

The trial started in February 2016. But in June last year, proceedings had to restart after the prosecution merged the case with another related case, in which eight people are suspected of helping the armed group.

The prosecution said that the men stole weapons from a police station, which they then used to attack the security forces in Kumanovo on May 9 and 10, 2015.

The defendants denied attacking the police and insisted that they were only defending themselves from attack.

The case and the controversy that surrounds it will not likely end with the court ruling. In September, addressing public concerns about the case, Macedonia's new Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, whose centre-left government was elected in May, said he favoured a retrial.

If that happens, the authorities may request international help and supervision to remove all remaining doubts about the case.

A special group of judicial experts working on judicial reforms is currently mulling a special law that would allow retrials of this and other cases in which interference by the past VMRO DPMNE-led government, which held power for 11 years, is supected.

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