A court in North Macedonia has found five ethnic Albanians guilty of terrorism in the retrial of a nine-year-old quintuple murder case that sent shock waves across the country and prompted speculation of political meddling.
Agim Ismailovic, Afrim Ismailovic, and Alil Demiri were sentenced to life in prison for the killing of five young ethnic Macedonians in April 2012, while two other defendants, Fejzi Aziri and Haki Aziri, were sentenced to 15 and nine years in prison, respectively, after they were found guilty of aiding the others in committing the murders.
They had all originally been sentenced to life in the first trial in June 2014.
Only Agim Ismailovic was present in court, as the others -- believed to be hiding in Kosovo -- were tried in absentia.
Delivering the verdict, presiding Judge Ognen Stavrev said that they were guilty of the crime of "terrorism."
"This was not a regular criminal act, this was a monstrous, sadistic killing, taking lives of children who had just stepped into maturity," Stavrev told the court as he read the verdict.
A sixth defendant, Samir Ljuta, was acquitted after the prosecution withdrew all charges earlier this year, citing a lack of evidence.
The five young Macedonians were killed with automatic rifles and a handgun near a lake on the outskirts of Skopje during Orthodox Easter celebrations in 2012.
Lawyers for the defendants, who pleaded not guilty at the retrial, said they would appeal the ruling.
Prosecutor Fatime Fetai said that the sentences were "adequate," but the defense reiterated claims made during the trial that the case was fabricated and that the evidence was planted by the police.
"We were not surprised by Samir Ljuta's acquittal, but we are surprised that the rest [of the defendants] were not acquitted as well," lawyer Naser Raufi told the court.
The bodies of Filip Slavkovski, Aleksandar Nakjevski, Cvetanco Acevski, and Kire Trickovski -- all aged between 18 and 20 -- were discovered near Smilkovci Lake in 2012.
The young men appeared to had been lined up and shot execution-style. The body of Borce Stevkovski, a 45-year-old fisherman, was found nearby.
The case sparked violent protests in the capital of North Macedonia, a country whose population is 25 percent ethnic Albanian.
It also triggered speculation that the accused had been framed by the Balkan country's government, led at the time by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
A first trial found the defendants guilty in June 2014 and sentenced to life in prison -- the longest possible sentence for terrorism.
But the convictions triggered protests by ethnic Albanians, and violent clashes ensued between riot police and demonstrators in Skopje.
In 2015, Social Democratic opposition leader Zoran Zaev, who is now prime minister, hinted that some of a trove of secretly wiretapped conversations that his party was releasing could possibly back claims that those convicted had been framed for political reasons.
In 2018, the prosecution asked the Supreme Court for the life sentences to be annulled, citing new circumstances and questionable evidence in the case.
But the retrial, which started in May 2018, failed to come up with enough proof and change the course of the case, despite fresh testimony by several high officials, including Zaev.