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News 16 Dec 16

Macedonia Court Rejects Key Evidence Against Former PM

The judge rejected the prosecution’s main evidence in the case against former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and 13 others accused of ordering an attack on an opposition mayor and his municipality HQ in 2013.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Nikola Gruevski [right] leaving the court. Photo: BIRN

At the start of the trial in Skopje on Friday, the court refused to allow the testimony of a witness with a concealed identity to be used as evidence, as well as the audio recordings of wiretapped conversations between former Prime Minister and ruling VMRO DPMNE party leader, Nikola Gruevski and others indictees.
During the hearing, all the suspects declined to be photographed and did not give statements. The next hearing has been scheduled for February 22.

There was also friction between judge Tatjana Mihajlova and deputy Special Prosecutor Fatime Fetai which marked the hearing.

“Would you like me to open my schedule book and allow you to schedule the trial?” Mihajlova remarked mockingly in response to Fetai’s request for an earlier date for the next hearing.

On several occasions, the judge’s remarks to Fetai caused laughter among Gruevski and some of the other defendants.

During the trial, Gruevski spent a lot of time speaking on his cellphone, despite the fact that cellphones were not allowed for the media representatives following the trial.

Gruevski's then Transport Minister Mile Janakieski also appeared along with 12 other people whom the Special Prosecution, SJO indicted for "incitement and carrying out a criminal act against public order".

While Gruevski, Janakieski and three others are indicted as the alleged instigators of the violence, other nine people stand trial for allegedly carrying it out.

The SJO, set up last year as part of the EU-brokered deal aimed at ending the country’s political crisis and tasked with investigating allegations of high-level crime mainly concerning top officials from the ruling party, filed charges against Gruevski on September 15 after it said it had gathered sufficient evidence.

Deputy Special Prosecutor, Fatime Fetai. Photo: BIRN

Originally the high-profile trial start was scheduled for November 21, which coincided with the start of the campaign for the December 11 early general election. But the court then postponed the session to after the elections, after the defence lawyers said they could not come to the trial.

The indictment and the trial follow the release of batches of wiretapped conversations by the opposition in early 2015 which escalated Macedonia's deep crisis.

One of the released conversations suggests that Gruevski was the one that ordered an attack on opposition mayor to Skopje's Centar municipality, Andrej Zernovski - which he evaded - during protests in front of the municipal HQ in Skopje's Centar district.

In June 2013, shortly after Zernovski won the mayoralty of Centar in local elections, a mob surrounded the municipal building, breaking windows and protesting against an alleged plan to destroy a church.

One municipal employee was injured and the mayor had to be evacuated. Gruevski's ruling VMRO DPMNE party insisted at the time that it had nothing to do with the incident.

While the opposition accused the protesters of being undercover ruling party activists, the VMRO DPMNE and most of the protesters themselves insisted that they gathered spontaneously, outraged by the mayor's alleged plan to destroy the church.

The prosecution in September claimed that from the content of the wiretapped audio materials and from further investigation, "it was established that the first indicted [Gruevski] intentionally asked the second indictee to organise the violence] and the second indictee [Janakieski] accepted [this request] without objections."

The SJO said it had established that the motives for giving order were financially-motivated - "for the preservation of the business interests of the political party establishment and of their friends" that were related to an announced change to the municipal urban plan in Centar.

The SJO said the indictees decided to prevent the municipal session from changing the urban plan by organising violent protests against the plan, which they alleged including the demolition of an Orthodox church. The mayor however denied this was part of the plan.

In April 2015, the opposition Social Democrats presented covertly-recorded tapes that they said proved that Gruevski was behind the unrest in Centar in June 2013.

On one tape, Gruevski's voice allegedly can be heard ordering Janakieski, to stage an attack on mayor Zernovski.

"I am thinking that he [Zernovski] should take five to six slaps in front of the cameras on Friday," a voice identified as Gruevski's can be heard saying.

"Let the citizens enter [the municipal building] and one of them should slap him three times, hard," the same voice tells Janakieski. Janakieski then replies: "We could arrange a scenario."

Gruevski's trial comes just after Sunday's vote in which his party gained a slight advantage over the opposition Social Democrats, which does not guarantee that he will be able to form a government.

The current uncertainty over the formation of a new government is also expected to influence the fate of the SJO.

While the ruling party says that its work should end soon, almost all other parties, including the Social Democrats, insist that its deadline for pressing charges which expires in the middle of next year must be extended.

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