Montenegro: 14 Indicted As Coup Controversy Continues

By Dusica Tomovic

Montenegro’s Special Prosecutor for organised crime, Milivoje Katnic, on Thursday filed an indictment againt 14 people suspected of having played roles in last year’s alleged coup plot, and sent it the High Court in Podgorica for approval.

Meanwhile, doubts continue to swirl over the official version of events.

Montenegrin, Serbian and Russian citizens accused in the case include the two opposition leaders in Montenegro, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, from the pro-Russian opposition Democratic Front.

Others include two Russian military intelligence officers and a police general from Serbia.

All were allegedly involved in a plot to overthrow the pro-Western government and assassinate the then Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, on election day, October 16.

Prosecutor Katnic has tried hard over the past six months to convince the public that the state has firm evidence that a terrorist attack was planned and organized by the two opposition leaders and by Russian nationals Vladimir Popov and Eduard Shirokov.

But many say the investigation has not dispelled suspicions that Djukanovic himself hired the plotters to play the role of putschists in order to win over voters and tar the opposition.

Djukanovic’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, duly came first in the October election.

The list of possible indictees is expected to include the former commander of the elite Serbian police unit, the Gendarmerie, Bratislav Dikic, arrested in Montenegro on October 16.

Despite claims that it has not come up with much firm evidence in support of its charges, the prosecution appears strongly supported by the government and by senior officials in some Western countries – who all accuse the Kremlin of conspiring to get rid of the current government in Montenegro.

Just days ahead of the indictment and the start of the “trial of the century”, US media reports cited White House sources as saying that there were “credible reports” that Russians supported the overthrow of the government in Montenegro.

“We are very concerned about Russian interference in the October elections in Montenegro, including credible reports of Russian support for an attempted election day attack on the government,” a senior White House official told the US reporters on April 12.

Inconsistencies mar investigation

Montenegrin police arrested a group of Serbian nationals on the eve of the 16 October vote while two Russian suspects remain at large, wanted over the alleged plot.

The authorities at first said only that the conspiracy was orchestrated by “Russian nationalists”.

But Katnic went a step further on February 19, suggesting that the Russian authorities had been involved in the attempted coup, in order to stop Montenegro from joining NATO.

The Kremlin has dismissed such allegations as absurd.

Asked where Montenegro got the first information about the terror plot, Katnic answered: “We got the information the way we have always received it, with the help of God.”

In one of his latest interviews, Katnic remained steadfast, even arguing that he deserves a Nobel prize for saving Montenegro.

Katnic again said the prosecution had gathered evidence to support its accusations, saying the weapons intended for use in the attack had been seized and destroyed “at a safe location in another country”.

He would not go into further details, however, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Later, Katnic said the some of the coup plotters tried the enter Montenegro through Albania.

Katnic may have convinced international and pro-government media in Montenegro that claims about a Russian-backed coup are indisputable, but at home he is widely criticized.

During the course of the investigation into the coup case and the hearings, local media and watchdogs reported many inconsistencies in the prosecution’s claims.

The first concerned the weapons, which the prosecution first claimed had been “safely destroyed“ in a third country.

In January, however, a protected witness, Milan Velimirovic, claimed he had bought the rifles for 15,000 euros in Serbia and had later tossed them into “a lake in Kosovo”.

During the open hearing, Velimirovic said he had acted on the suggestion of the prosecution, which prompted criticism that Kantichad ordered such thing – to destroy the key evidence of the alleged crime.

The names of the main suspects and their role in the plot have also caused confusion.

Last November, the prosecution claimed that a Serbian nationalist named Aleksandar Sindjelic, who had reportedly fought on the pro-Russian side in Ukraine, masterminded the plot and led the criminal ring.

Two months later, however, after the prosecution granted him protected witness status to testify against the other accused, it was revealed that his name was Sasa, not Aleksandar.

The name of one of the Russians allegedly involved in the plot also appears to be different from what the prosecution at first claimed.

Initially, he was named as Eduard Shirokov. But on February 21, Katnic said the head of the group was in fact Eduard Shishmakov, which appeared to be the real name of the former Russian military officer.

Shishmakov had been a deputy military attache at the Russian embassy in Warsaw. He was declared persona non grata in Poland in June 2014, along with three other Russian citizens, because it was believed they were involved in spying.

Main witness ‘a murder convict’ in Croatia

The latest coup controversy concerned information revealed by the opposition Democratic Front on April 9.

This said that Sasa Sindjelic, the main protected witness, had been convicted of murder in Croatia.

According to Croatian court papers revealed by the Front, Sindjelic was sentenced to 21 years in prison for a murder committed in 2002.

The Front accused prosecutor Katnic of deliberately hiding this information, demanding his immediate resignation.

On April 11, the Croatian Justice Ministry confirmed it had issued an Interpol warrant against Sindjelic saying it was “interested in seeking his extradition from Montenegro”.

The statement from the Podgorica Higher Court, which approved protected witness status for Sindjelic, added fuel to the row when the court said it had not been aware of his murder conviction in Croatia.

Local media reported that since this revelation, special police forces have been guarding Sindjelic at a “secret location in Montenegro”.

In another twist, the second protected witness, Milan Velimirovic, on April 8 said that he had signed a statement before the court in Novi Pazar in Serbia, claiming that everything he told the Montenegrin prosecution earlier about Russians and Serbs involved in the plot had been a lie.

Velimirovic claimed the Montenegrin prosecution had forced him to accuse them.

The prosecution has denied being involved in hiding information from the court and has denied forcing Velimirovic to give false testimony.

“Questioning the credibility of Sasa Sindjelic in connection with the status of witness collaborator aims to create in the public a negative attitude towards the validity of the criminal proceedings and confirms that the organizers of criminal organizations are making great efforts to prevent conviction of its members,“ the prosecution said on April 11, referring to the fact that Front leaders Mandic and Knezevic could be indicted.


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Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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