The case reflects both internal power politics and the ramifications of regional officials trying to show that they are playing a serious role in the war on terrorism.
The court, in Skopje, acquitted the three former policemen and a fourth defendant on 22 April of the killing of seven Asian migrants in all -- six from Pakistan and one who is thought have been from India -- outside the capital in March 2002. The court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove charges that the defendants killed the migrants in a shootout staged so that the Interior Ministry could claim that police killed Al-Qaeda members planning to attack Western embassies in Skopje (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 5 March 2002 and 25 April and 2 May 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 May 2004 and 19 January and 26 March 2005).
Macedonian press reports suggested that the acquittals were due to poorly prepared charges, inconclusive testimony by prosecution witnesses, and effective work by the defense attorneys. Prosecutor Sterjo Zikov announced that he will challenge the acquittal as soon as he receives the reasons for the verdict. "We believe that the verdict does not take into account all the circumstances in the case," Zikov said.
Domestic and international reactions to the verdicts showed how politically and publicly charged the trial had become. In Macedonia, conservative and nationalist opposition parties, such as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) and its offshoots, as well as the Liberal Party, welcomed the acquittals. For the opposition, the acquittals dealt a serious blow to the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM) and its coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI).
The opposition parties had claimed from the beginning that the SDSM-led government set up the trial in order to discredit a special police unit known as the Lions and former Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski of the previous VMRO-DPMNE-led government. Boskovski had also been charged in the case but managed to flee to Croatia. However, Croatian authorities subsequently arrested Boskovski and charged him with murder. In March, Croatia sent Boskovski to the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal, where he faces charges in a separate case (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March and 4 April 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 26 March 2005).
VMRO-DPMNE Chairman Nikola Gruevski congratulated the court for what he called its resistance to political pressure from the government. Vesna Janevska, who is acting chairwoman of the opposition splinter party VMRO-People's Party, said the acquittals were truly a landmark. "We were right when we said that the judges are solid," Janevska said.
"The most important thing is that [the perpetrators] were controlled by the state. If the state fails to find the real perpetrators, a dark cloud will hang over the affair forever."
The governing SDSM refrained from commenting on the verdicts, denying that it tried to influence the trial. "We of the SDSM were very careful from the beginning and called [on the political parties] not to politicize the judicial process," SDSM spokesman Boris Kondarko said.
The verdict could nonetheless have negative repercussions for the governing coalition.
The Liberal Democrats, whose chairman, Risto Penov, lost his position as Skopje mayor in the recent local elections, demanded that "someone" take responsibility for the political damage caused by mistakes made during the trial. Penov told "Utrinski vesnik" on 29 April that he will ask SDSM Chairman and Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski for precise answers to some questions, including whether prosecutors failed to prepare the trial properly, or whether allegations that some witnesses were bribed are true.
So far, the SDSM's ethnic Albanian coalition partners from the BDI have not commented on the trial. That does not mean, however, that Macedonian Albanians were indifferent to the verdicts. Muhamed Halili, who is a diplomat, and Daut Dauti, a journalist, both called attention to the potential international repercussions of the trial. In his comment for "Dnevnik" of 30 April, Halili suggested that the international community is not so much interested in the names of the perpetrators. "The most important thing is that [the perpetrators] were controlled by the state," Halili said. "If the state fails to find the real perpetrators, a dark cloud will hang over the affair forever."
Dauti wrote in "Dnevnik" that it is dangerous to call the trial a victory for the independence of the judiciary. Dauti did not rule out that there were irregularities, but he also pointed to the fact that the main question remains unanswered: "Why were the Pakistanis killed? What will Pakistan say to this verdict?"
The Pakistani response was clear. A spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry has announced that Islamabad will challenge the verdicts, the Islamabad-based "News International" reported on 30 April. "Not only do we have a lawyer to represent the murdered Pakistanis, but the government of Macedonia has approached us and asked us for more details," the spokesman said.