News 27 May 15

Macedonia Opposition: Ethnic Terror Convictions ‘Suspicious’

The opposition chief claimed wiretapped conversations of officials cast doubt on the convictions of six ethnic Albanians for killing five ethnic Macedonians - a verdict that sparked ethnic unrest.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Sase Dimovski

The defendants in court.

The covertly-recorded tapes of Macedonian officials’ conversations that the opposition says it plans to publish soon could undermine the official story about the six men convicted of the murders at Smilkovci Lake near Skopje in 2012, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev, said on Wednesday.

“There are big suspicions in regards to what happened in this case. Surely with the revelation of the material about Smilkovci Lake, or the ‘Monster’ case as the government dubbed it, a painful truth will be revealed. Our intention is not to interpret the case but once the truth is revealed, the people will know [that there are grounds for suspicion about the convictions],” Zaev told an open-air press conference in front of the government HQ in Skopje.

Zaev also told the German newspaper Die Zeit that he fears that the publication of the tapes, which he said reveal "the truth about the case”, might cause a violent reaction from the country’s large Albanian community.

He said that his party was currently "having intense talks with the Albanian community to find a way to prevent such a reaction".

The corpses of Filip Slavkovski, Aleksandar Nakjevski, Cvetanco Acevski and Kire Trickovski, all aged between 18 and 20, were discovered on April 12, 2012 near Smilkovci Lake in the vicinity of Skopje. 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.

In July 2014 the court in Skopje gave the longest possible sentence for terrorism offences, jail for life, to six alleged ethnic Albanian Muslim extremists over the killings.

The terrorism convictions sparked even more tension as running battles erupted in Skopje between several thousand angry and predominantly young ethnic Albanians and riot police who used tear gas, water cannons, stun grenades and pepper spray in an attempt to quell the unrest.

The protesters said they did not trust the court, accusing the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of influencing the verdicts.

Opposition leader Zoran Zaev. Photo: AP/Boris Grdanoski.

The convicted men in the case that the authorities dubbed ‘Monster’ are currently appealing against the verdict. Court sources told BIRN that a hearing will not take place before September. The court of appeals could either uphold the verdict or order a retrial.

Zaev’s comments about the case came amid a deep political crisis sparked by the allegations of government wrongdoings contained in previously published wiretapped tapes, which have sparked calls for Gruevski’s resignation.

Originally Zaev said he planned to publish what he had on the Monster case before the May 17 opposition rally in Skopje, where Macedonian and Albanian flags were waved together, a scene rarely seen in the ethnically-divided country.

But he changed his plans following a two-day-long shootout on May 9-10 between police and armed men in the town of Kumanovo which left eight police officers and ten gunmen dead.

The shootout sparked fears of a conflict similar to that in 2001 when Albanian insurgents clashed with security forces. Albanians make up a quarter of the country’s 2.1 million population.

Former Macedonian legislator and political analyst Ismet Ramadani said that despite some risks, "an ambience is being created for Zaev to publish what he has regarding this case".

Ramadani argued that "the foiled attempt at sparking inter-ethnic tension in Kumanovo", which contrary to expectations saw an outburst of interethnic unity, and the significant presence of Albanians at the opposition rally just a few days later, suggests that "people are no longer susceptible to ethnic manipulation".

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