Montenegro convicts pro-Russian politicians of coup plot

A Montenegro court on Thursday handed jail sentences to two opposition politicians and a dozen others, including Russians and Serbians, over an alleged 2016 plot to topple the government and halt its bid to join NATO. Pro-Russian opposition leaders Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic were given five years behind bars for being part of a criminal organisation whose aim was to "violently overthrow" the government and "prevent Montenegro from joining NATO," judge Suzana Mugosa said. The heaviest sentences, 12 and 15 years, went to two alleged Russian spies tried in absentia. Authorities first arrested suspects on the eve of October 2016 elections, the night before the group was allegedly planning to stage their takeover. At the time, the pro-Russian coalition was the main rival against then-prime minister Milo Djukanovic in October 2016 elections. Djukanovic, who has run the small Balkan state almost continuously since 1991, was later elected President in 2018. Moscow, which had opposed the tiny Balkan state's efforts to join NATO at the time, has rejected allegations of its involvement as "absurd". The other people convicted were a Montenegrin and nine Serbians, including a former police general and anti-NATO activist who received eight years in jail. Since the trial opened a year and a half ago, Montenegro's opposition has decried it as a government-backed "witch hunt" aimed at destroying their political camp, known as the Democratic Front. Speaking at his party's headquarters after the ruling, Mandic called the verdict a "complete farce" engineered by the Djukanovic family. "All those who attack us will suffer severe consequences and accountability," he added. Knezevic, 39, added that "the judge did not show a single proof against the Democratic Front." The politicians are expected to appeal the ruling. - Unanswered questions - In the years since the alleged coup attempt, Montenegro joined NATO and the government has continued its negotiations for accession to the European Union. The opposition's Democratic Front coalition remains weakened. Political analyst Sergej Sekulovic noted that prosecutors have recently shifted "in the direction of minimising Moscow's official role in this case". The ruling nevertheless "strengthens the position of the government, which from the beginning has held an identical position to that of the prosecutor," he added. The UK's foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt continued to point the finger at Moscow. "Guilty! Conviction of 2 Russian intelligence officers for failed coup attempt in Montenegro another example of Russia's outrageous attempts to undermine European democracy," he wrote in Twitter. Observers say the months-long trial still left many questions unanswered. The weapons that the plotters allegedly planned to use were never shown in court. According to the indictment, dozens of cases of automatic weapons and three cases of ammunition were thrown into a lake in a neighbouring country. Prosecutors later said a Serbian who provided the weapons ultimately destroyed them at the request of Montenegrin justice. "Without these weapons, the story of a violent overthrow of power is unconvincing," Dragan Soc, a lawyer and Montenegro's former justice minister, told AFP ahead of the ruling. One of the prosecution's key witnesses, Serbian national Aleksandar Sindjelic, also reversed his testimony about a Russian-funded plot. In March he told a Serbian television channel that there had been no "plan of violence in Podgorica", only an anti-NATO "protest". The court did not bring him back to the witness stand, saying his reversal was expressed outside any judicial framework. burs-ssm/klm The defendants include two leaders of a pro-Russian opposition coalition, Milan Knezevic (L) and Andrija Mandic (R) of the Democratic Front Authorities first arrested suspects on the eve of October 2016 elections