An ethnically-charged, politically contentious retrial of six ethnic Albanians for the 2012 murders of five Macedonian men was expected to cast fresh light on the gruesome case, but as the final verdict approaches, hopes of a breakthrough have faded.
By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Almost nine years after the killing of five ethnic Macedonians near the capital Skopje and two years since the suspects’ retrial began, this high-profile case that caused inter-ethnic turmoil and sparked political speculation about the motives behind the murders, draws to a closure.
Skopje’s Criminal Court is due on February 23 to deliver the verdict on the six ethnic Albanians charged with facilitating and committing the murders of five ethnic Macedonian fishermen near the capital Skopje.
Despite high hopes, the newly presented evidence in the retrial, in the form of 25 wiretapped conversations between former high-ranking politicians and police officials, failed to change the course of the proceedings. They did not offer any ground-breaking clues about a mooted political or police set-up or meddling with the case, ideas which the defence had been proclaiming for years.
Equally disappointing and uneventful were the testimonies of several new witnesses, most notable of which was that of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who was the one who had previously the speculation about a possible political set-up.
This prompted the prosecution to stick mainly to the old forensic evidence and testimonies from the first trial. But unlike the first trial, which ended with life imprisonment sentences for all six defendants, this time the prosecution demanded life in prison only for three of the defendants who are believed to be the actual perpetrators of the murder – Alil Demiri, Afrim Ismailovic (who is being tried in absentia) and Agim Ismailovic.
The prosecution this time demanded lower jail sentences for, Haki Aziri and Fejzi Aziri who are accused for helping the murderers, and dropped all charges for the sixth defendant, Sami Ljuta, due to lack of evidence.
During the closing arguments on January 21, prosecutor Fatime Fetai argued that the defendants were not terrorists but that they have nevertheless committed a terrorist act. Provoking an ethnic conflict and destabilisation of the ethnically mixed country has been the most probable motive, Fetai suggested. For that reason, the victims were deliberately picked to be ethnic Macedonians.
“This event could have easily provoked a repeated conflict with innocent victims, [and is] an event that which increased the mistrust and hatred between the Macedonian and Albanian ethnic communities,” the prosecutor pointed out.
“This act deserves nothing less than life in prison sentence,” she urged during her closing argument.
Quite the contrary, said defence lawyer Naser Raufi who gave his closing argument on February 3, insisted that the retrial has shown the many flaws in the evidence, had shown credible suspicions that the police had planted not only a protected witness but also false forensic evidence as well.
He demanded full acquittal of all six defendants, insisting once more that their clients were mere scapegoats to a politically motivated setup facilitated by the police, and that the forensic evidence and testimonies against them were inconclusive and quite possibly planted by the police.
“The ‘Monster’ case is a fully fabricated case synonymous with the Dreyfus Affair, but has much more long standing consequences because six innocent people were sentenced to life in prison” Raufi told the court, referring to the notorious French affair which has since became a symbol of complex miscarriage of justice and antisemitism in the Francophone world.
Case that shook the nation
The bodies of Filip Slavkovski, Aleksandar Nakjevski, Cvetanco Acevski and Kire Trickovski, all aged between 18 and 20, were discovered during Orthodox Easter on April 12, 2012. Their bodies had been lined up near Smilkovsko lake near Skopje and appeared to have been executed.
The body of 45-year-old Borce Stevkovski was found a short distance from the others.
News of the murder raised ethnic tensions, when groups of ethnic Macedonians staged protests, some of which turned violent, blaming the killings on members of the country’s large Albanian community, which makes up around a quarter of the population.
Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska claimed the suspected perpetrators had committed an act of terrorism intended to spark religious and ethnic tensions in the country, which had gone through a several-months-long armed conflict between security forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents in 2001.
Defendants Alil Demiri, Afrim Ismailovic, Agim Ismailovic, Fejzi Aziri, Haki Aziri and Sami Ljuta were put on trial, and in June 2014, Skopje Criminal Court found them guilty. They were given the longest possible sentence for terrorism offences, life in prison.
The convictions sparked furious protests by ethnic Albanians, with violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators on the streets of Skopje. Like the defence in the trial, the protesters believed that the six men had been framed as scapegoats by the authoritarian government led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
Interest in the case increased in 2015 when the then opposition Social Democrats, led by Zoran Zaev, who is now prime minister, started releasing leaked batches of secretly recorded telephone conversations of top officials, accusing Gruevski and his cousin, secret police chief Saso Mijalkov, of being behind a mass wiretapping scandal involving thousands of politicians, journalists, businessmen and others.
On several occasions, Zaev hinted that some of the wiretaps, which he claimed had leaked from the secret police, could contain new evidence about the Monster case, which could substantiate speculation about a possible politically-motivated set-up. In May 2015, Zaev said that “a painful truth will be revealed” when material about the case was made public. an open-air press conference in front of the government HQ in Skopje in May 2015.
Zaev never released these particular tapes insisting that they would cause even more harm. Instead, they were later handed to the Special Prosecution, which was tasked with investigate claims of wrongdoing arising from the wiretaps.
Retrial starts under new government
In 2017, after a long-running political crisis that was exacerbated by the wiretap scandal, Gruevski’s VMRO DPMNE-led government was ousted, and Zaev’s Social Democrats came to power.
A retrial in the ‘Monster’ case then started in May 2018 after the prosecution asked the Supreme Court in October 2017 for the life sentences to be quashed, citing new circumstances and questionable evidence in the case.
The Special Prosecution took jurisdiction and said it would present new evidence. In what appeared to be a symbolic gesture, the case was given to prosecutor Fatime Fetai, who is of ethnic Albanian decent.
Hopes were high among the defence lawyers and the families of the victims alike, that the wiretaps and new witnesses – including Prime Minister Zaev – would shed new light on the case, finally revealing the truth.
But in its initial stages, the retrial focused on the material evidence and forensic reports. Police forensic analyst Nexhat Muric told the court that the victims were killed by three separate firearms, two Kalashnikov rifles and one 9mm pistol. He said that a total of 21 bullets ended up in the victims’ bodies, while investigators have found eight used firearm casings on the crime scene.
Muric said that the forensic analysis had shown that one of the used casings found on the murder scene matched another casing gathered as evidence in a prior case against one of the defendants, Fejzi Aziri.
Back in 2009, Aziri was found guilty of firing a Kalasnikov rifle at a farm in the village of Belimbegovo over a dispute with a neighbour. The analyst said that the shells gathered in Belimbegovo and one of the shells from the Smilkovci lake matched.
However, police have never found the actual murder weapons.
Defence lawyer Naser Raufi said that it was suspicious that only one of the casings found at the murder scene matches that from Belimbegovo.
“This sparks a suspicion that one of the casings was taken from police storage and planted as evidence,” Raufi said.
The court also heard the testimony of a protected witness codenamed E-1 ,who during the first trial gave a statement saying that a few days before the murder, he saw defendants Sami Ljuta, Fejzi Aziri and Agim Ismailovic at Lake Smilkovsko several times at around 6am and at 6pm, presumably surveying the location in advance.
The defence argued that E-1 might have also been a police plant and that he was not credible because he had previously already given contradictory statements about the defendants’ appearance, claiming they had long beards, which their barber testified was not true.
Among the pieces of evidence was also soil from the mudguards of a red Opel Omega, which was found four days after the murder some ten kilometres from the scene and which the prosecution believes was the getaway car. The soil was found to match samples taken from the ground at the murder scene. Tests on the car also revealed DNA samples that matched defendant Alil Demiri.
The defence disputed this too, claiming it was illogical for the car to be found intact, and not destroyed, if indeed it was used as an escape vehicle. The defence also disputed the DNA findings, insisting that they might have been planted by the police along with the car to serve as false evidence.
But Sinisa Aleksovski, former head of a now-defunct police unit called Alfa, which would have used these kind of unmarked vehicles, said that while he was in charge the unit, which was present at ‘Mosnter’ crime scene, the police used a dark red Opel Astra but not an Opel Omega.
More testimony repeated from the first trial came from four Roma fishermen who said they were at the lake at the time, saw one of the defendants and heard the fatal shots. They said that one of the defendants approached the fishermen holding a firearm and asked for their names, which according to the witnesses revealed that the Roma men were not Orthodox Christians. The gunman then chased them off without harming them.
The defence disputed the fishermen’s testimony, saying that the idea that they were spared because they were not Christians was a mere assumption.
One of the defendants, Haki Aziri, claimed in court that he was at home on the day of the murders, but the prosecution recalled his statement during the original trial in which he seemed admit helping the perpetrators get to and escape from the murder scene.
According to this testimony, which Aziri originally gave in May 2012 but later withdrew and said was extracted from him under pressure, he said that on the day of the murder he transported Afrim Ismailovic with to nearby Skopje suburb of Topaansko Pole, where Ismailovic allegedly got into the red Opel Omega, the car later the police found near the murder scene.
Aziri also testified that later that day, around 7.20 in the evening, he parked at a previously agreed spot near the murder scene and waited for the perpetrators until the red Opel Omega parked behind him. Alil Demiri and Afrim Ismailovic then entered his car and Ismailovic had allegedly told him: “We have made a mess, we killed a man!”
According to Aziri’s now-withdrawn testimony, they then told him to drive them to his home, and he had only found out what really happened late that evening from the internet.
Prosecutor Fetai argued that since there was no evidence to suggest that Aziri’s original statement was given under pressure, it should be taken into account by the court and not his later denial.
Wiretaps fail to prove political meddling
One of the anticipated highlights at the retrial was the playing of the 25 previously unreleased wiretapped conversations that Prime Minister Zaev had hinted were potential game-changers while he was leader of the opposition.
But when the wiretaps of conversations between former top officials were played at a hearing held in September 2019, none of them offered a substantial new lead.
In one conversation between the former Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska and then Transport Minister Mile Janakieski, on April 16, 2012, Jankuloska complained how hard it was to investigate the case.
“We have not had such a thing in the history of Macedonia. We have had [killings of] soldiers, but these are children. We never had five civilians, not even in the war [2001 armed conflict],” she said.
In other conversations, the trial heard how representatives of the then ruling VMRO DPMNE party complained that their junior Albanian partners in the governing coalition, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, were stalling an extradition request for two of the accused from neighbouring Kosovo.
Afrim Ismailovic and Alil Demiri are still believed to be hiding in neighbouring Kosovo. During the original trial in North Macedonia, they were serving jail in Kosovo for weapons-trafficking. Although they were subsequently released, they were never extradited to North Macedonia.
But none of the covertly-recorded tapes substantiated allegations that the VMRO DPMNE government framed the ethnic Albanian suspects to score political points. At hearings in early 2020, former Interior Minister Jankuloska and former secret police chief Saso Mijalkov both insisted that they had no prior knowledge that the murders would happen, and said that police wholeheartedly investigated the case in line with the law.
Zaev’s testimony seen as anti-climax
In what was expected to be another highlight of the retrial, Prime Minister Zaev finally appeared as a witness in February 2020, but his testimony was also deemed largely anti-climactic.
Zaev said that he did not get a complete picture about the case from the wiretaps that he had heard. He denied having direct evidence or knowledge about the possible involvement of former top officials or of a possible political or police set-up.
He said that from the wiretaps he had heard, former ruling party politicians were “expressing interest” about the case, but he could not pinpoint any possible wrongdoing.
“It is not true that I have knowledge and evidence about involvement of [former parliament speaker] Trajko Veljanoski,” Zaev said when asked directly by the defence about his past statements.
He said that in the past he “might have” mentioned the names of former parliament speaker Trajko Veljanoski, ex-secret police chief Mijalkov, former Interior Minister Jankuloska and former Transport Minister Janakieski in connection with the case, but that he never claimed that they were involved.
“If I mentioned things like that, this was because of the speculation in the media,” Zaev said.
During closing arguments in January this year, prosecutor Fatime Fetai concluded that the wiretaps failed to reveal “some new truth” about the case, as did the new testimonies.
Meanwhile lawyer Dafinka Ivanovska, who represented the families of the victims, also said in January that the wiretaps and Zaev’s testimony were practically a waste of time that “did not contribute to a significant change in the factual situation concerning this criminal act”.
But North Macedonia’s chief public prosecutor Ljubomir Jovevski told Deutsche Welle this month that he disagrees with the idea that the retrial has failed to offer anything new “because charges were withdrawn for one of the defendants, and the actions of other defendants have been made more clear”.
Whatever the verdict in February 23, it is already safe to assume that it will again fuel divisions within society.
That the case is still a potential powder keg was shown in late January when a protest in front of the prosecution office in Skopje, organised by relatives of the defendants who were calling for the dismissal of prosecutor Fatime Fetai, ended with windows being broken, traffic bollards torn out and dumpsters demolished.