By Semra Musai
The trial of 37 alleged members and accomplices of an ethnic Albanian terror group that battled Macedonian police in Kumanovo last year has been marred by allegations about false witnesses and police brutality.
The trial of the 29 alleged gunmen and their eight alleged accomplices, accused of being part of or aiding a terrorist group that fought the security forces during a deadly two-day shootout in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo in May last year, has been hit by defence claims that prosecution witnesses have been coached to lie in court.
The trial has been going on behind closed doors, but Artene Ademi Iseini, the lawyer for 11 of the defendants, claimed that protected witnesses who have been giving testimony have been coached by the prosecutors to echo the authorities’ version of what happened in Kumanovo.
“Prosecution witnesses are describing in a very cynical way things that probably the prosecution itself taught them what to say. Their testimony is contradictory, confusing and does not support the indictment. In some cases it is compromising for the police and the prosecution,” Iseini told BIRN.
More than a year after the Kumanovo shootout in May 2015, which left 18 people dead, Iseini said that the truth about what happened during the two-day gun battle remains unclear.
The prosecution says the group devised a plan to form a terrorist group and acquired cash, weapons, ammunition and medical supplies.
According to the prosecution, they initially attacked and robbed a police station in the mountainous village of Goshince, near the Kosovo border on April 21 and 22, 2015.
It’s alleged that they stole weapons from the police station, which they used for the attack on the security forces in Kumanovo on May 9 and 10.
Seventeen of the defendants are not from Macedonia but from Kosovo; one has both Kosovo and German citizenship.
All of them deny the charges and say that the two-day shootout was a result of them defending themselves from the police.
Lawyer Iseini said that the prosecution has failed to prove its claims.
“I do not agree with the charges of terrorism, because on May 9 to 10, these men did not attack; on the contrary, the police forces attacked the group. There are no civilian victims, no kidnapping, and they surrendered with the mediation of the OSCE,” she said.
Iseini said she believed that the terror charges would be dropped and new charges laid against the men.
“They will be charged with weapons offences, illegally staying in Macedonian territory, and murder in self-defence eventually,” she suggested.
Iseini also suggested that the men could have been set up by the authorities.
“We, the lawyers, have understood that somebody entrapped and manipulated these men by using their patriotic feelings, or wanted to get revenge against some of the participants of the 2001 conflict,” she alleged.
In 2001, Macedonia went through a brief armed conflict between Albanian insurgents and the security forces.
The conflict ended the same year with the signing of an internationally-brokered peace accord that guaranteed greater rights to Albanians who make up a quarter of the country’s 2.1 million population.
Allegations of police brutality
Defence lawyers at the trial have continued to raise concerns about alleged police brutality against their clients during their transportation from prison to the court and back.
“They are being hit in their necks, ribs, legs, their fingers put in their mouth, their heads tied to the floor, and are also being threatened and offended on an ethnic basis,” Iseini said.
Macedonian Ombudsman Ixhet Mehmeti, who has visited the defendants in prisons in Skopje, Prilep and Bitola, said he has noticed violations of their rights and has submitted criminal complaints.
Mehmeti told BIRN that two of his complaints are being investigated, but the prosecution in Bitola said his allegations were unfounded.
The prosecution in Skopje confirmed that it has received the criminal complaints from the Ombudsman and lawyers for the defendants and has merged them into one case.
“The relevant prosecutor is proceeding intensively with the case,” the Skopje prosecution told BIRN.
Deputy Interior Minister of Agim Nuhiu said that a commission has been set up to investigate the allegations of police brutality against the defendants.
“We are gathering the complaints, material evidence from the other institutions, we are communicating with a number of institutions, as well as following the media reports in order to find out the truth about these allegations,” Nuhiu told BIRN.
Justice Minister Valdet Xhaferi insisted however that the defendants were not being tortured in custody, but he did not want to comment on what happened during their transportation to court, claiming that he does not have authority over that.
“While in custody, the defendants are being treated according to the law,” Xhaferi told BIRN.
Trial could restart again
The trial may also have to restart from the beginning for a second time, lawyers said.
In May this year, the court decided to restart the trial after the cases against the alleged gunmen and their accomplices, who were arrested in October 2015 in villages close to the Kosovo border, were merged.
Now that another suspect has been held, another restart is necessary, argued Iseini.
“After the extradition of another suspect, Sulejman Osmani, from Kosovo in June this year, the court is obliged to restart the process from the beginning,” she said.
The prosecution confirmed that it has filed an indictment against Osmani but did not say whether or not it has proposed merging the case with the one against the existing defendants on trial.
“The prosecution has sent the indictment against the person who was extradited to Skopje Basic Court. At the moment the indictment is being assessed by the court,” the prosecution told BIRN.
The Basic Court said meanwhile that no decision has yet been made.
“We cannot prejudge whether or not the Kumanovo case is going to be restarted because the indictment has not been assessed yet, while the merging of the two cases it is not a matter that the court can decide solely but should be proposed by the authorised prosecutor,” the court told BIRN.
Osmani was arrested in the village of Letince near Viti/Vitina in eastern Kosovo in July last year.
He was initially detained by the Macedonian police after the shootout, but managed to escape several days later, after police brought him to mountainous terrain near the border with Kosovo where he was expected to pinpoint the location of a hidden stash of weapons.
Calls for an inquiry
The shootout in Kumanovo came against a backdrop of a deep political crisis in Macedonia, revolving around opposition claims that former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski ordered the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people.
Tapes released by the opposition last year revealed an intricate web of corruption, bribery and manipulation.
The leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev, voiced concerns after the bloodshed in Kumanovo that the Gruevski-led government was using the shootout to distract attention from the political crisis in the country.
Days after the carnage, Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska and secret police chief Saso Mijalkov resigned.
However, in their resignation notes to parliament, they insisted that their departure was not related to the events in Kumanovo.
Suspicions expressed at the time by opposition leaders and some political observers that the shootout was a political set-up to divert attention from the crisis buffeting Gruevski’s government remain unaddressed.
The defence wants evidence brought before the court to include recordings made by the Macedonian intelligence services as well as those from other countries, which they claim show the group was paid two million euros by the authorities to stage the shootout.
Several EU countries including Germany last year supported local calls for an international inquiry into the Kumanovo clashes.
The trial continues.