News 23 Dec 16

Macedonia NATO Killings Case Unresolved After 13 Years

Defendants in the politically-charged Sopot case, in which ethnic Albanian villagers are accused of planting a mine that killed NATO soldiers in 2003, are hoping a new investigation will establish their innocence.

Sase Dimovski
BIRN
Skopje

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

Eleven 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 are hoping that the case will be transferred to the new Special Prosecution, SJO, and that a fresh investigation will be launched which could exonerate them.

The initial hearing in their retrial at Skopje's Criminal Court was postponed yet again on Tuesday this week, following the postponement of four other hearings earlier this year. Only two preparatory hearings have taken place so far.

After the latest postponement, some of the defendants, who insist they are innocent, told media that they were fed up with waiting.

"We are tired. We have been going through courts and prisons for 13 years. I don't know what to say. I hope that justice will prevail," said one of them, Shakir Sulejmani.

"This postponement has a political background. I hope that after the formation of the new government [after the December 11 elections], the case will start again from the beginning. I also hope that the SJO will take this case," said another defendant, Shaban Limani.

The reason given for the latest postponement was that the organised crime prosecutor did not appear in court but Naser Raufi, the lawyer for most of the defendants, said he thought that was because the SJO would take over the case.

"That's why the prosecutor from the organised crime prosecution, which has led the case so far, did not appear," Raufi told BIRN.

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

It said that it should take case because top officials mention it in the wiretaps, which could shed new light on the crime.

In one of the wiretapped conversations that the opposition Social Democrats released last year, 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 previous conviction of the villagers rests on very thin evidence.

Despite a legal obligation for the regular organised crime prosecution to hand over the case within eight days after being asked to do so by the SJO, it instead handed it over to the Prosecutors’ Council, which has yet to discuss who should be in charge of it.

Prosecutors from the new Special Prosecution. Photo: MIA.

Initially, the head of the Prosecutor's Council, Petar Anevski, who presides over the body that elects and dismisses prosecutors, insisted that the SJO cannot have the case since the alleged crimes happened in 2003, much earlier than the timeframe of 2008-2015 in which the SJO has a mandate to investigate.

But after the SJO reminded Anevski that "we have the right to investigate criminal acts that that took place before 2008, if there is evidence found among the illegal wiretaps", Anevski retracted and said that he will set a session of the Prosecutors’ Council on the issue by the end of this year.

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, 12 defendants were originally sentenced in March 2010 to a total of 150 years in jail, but after 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 his confession was extorted after alleged police torture. This resulted in the court granting a new trial, which was originally supposed to start in 2011.

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

Ethnic Albanian political parties have criticised the case as an example of injustice against Albanians in Macedonia.

The next court hearing is scheduled for February 2017 but it remains to be seen whether the SJO will have taken over the case by then, and whether it will order a fresh investigation.

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