PODGORICA -- Montenegro's High Court has convicted a group of 14 Russians, Serbs, and Montenegrins on terrorism charges and creating a criminal organization as part of an October 2016 attempted coup aimed at derailing the country's NATO membership bid.
In a pair of posts on Twitter following the verdict, the Montenegrin government commented that "the judiciary has shown its adherence to its constitutional position of autonomy and resilience against every kind of pressure and external influence."
"Montenegro has once again shown that its statehood and independence rest on solid foundations of the rule of law, which no one can or will be able to shake," the government statement said.
Two alleged Russian military intelligence officers (GRU) who were accused of organizing the violent overthrow of Montenegro's government coup were convicted and sentenced in absentia.
Russian citizen Eduard Shishmakov was sentenced in absentia to nine years in prison for creating a criminal organization and eight years in prison for attempted terrorism. Set up to be served as partially concurrent sentences, the length of Shishmakov's total sentence is to be 15 years.
Russian citizen Vladimir Popov was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison on each of the charges -- for a total of 12 years in prison as a partially concurrent sentence.
The presiding trial judge, Suzan Mugosa, said on May 9 that Shishmakov and Popov "pursued a joint decision to make intentional attempts to contribute significantly to the carrying out of the planned criminal actions with the intention to seriously threaten the citizens of Montenegro, to attack the lives and bodies of others, and to seriously threaten and damage Montenegro's basic constitutional, political, and social structures in order to stop Montenegro from joining the NATO alliance."
Two pro-Russian leaders of Montenegro's opposition Democratic Front -- Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic -- were sentenced to five years while their Montenegrin driver, Mihajlo Cadenovic, was given an 18-month prison sentence.
For the nine citizens of Serbia convicted in the coup plot, the harshest sentence was against Branislav Dikic -- a former Serbian police general who received eight years in prison.
Predrag Bogicevic and Nemanja Ristic, both members of Serbian ultranationalist groups, each were sentenced in absentia to seven years.
Branka Milic, who fled to Serbia's embassy in Podgorica in late 2018, received a three-year sentence; Dragan Maksi was sentenced to 21 months; Srboljub Dordevic was sentenced to 18 months; and Kristina Hristic received a suspended sentence.
Montenegro's High Court found that the group had plotted to occupy the country's parliament during the 2016 parliamentary elections, assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, and install a pro-Russian leadership.
Judge Mugosa ruled on May 9 that all of the defendants had tasks aimed at violently overthrowing the Montenegrin government and declaring an electoral victory for the Democratic Front in order to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO.
The court ruled that Mandic and Knezevic were tasked with recruiting people and preparing a protest in front of the parliament with the aim of storming the legislature.
Mugosa said the evidence proved Knezevic also had been tasked with conveying messages among members of a criminal organization abroad.
Mugosa said the trial evidence also proved that Knezevic accepted the task of hiring other people to take part in the attempted coup.
The Kremlin has denied that "Russian state bodies" were involved.
Court spokeswoman Aida Muzurovic told RFE/RL that upon receiving a formal written text of the verdict, the defense attorneys have 15 days to appeal the ruling.
Defense attorney Miroje Jovanovic said he would appeal the May 9 verdict, which he described as “the reading of a political pamphlet” that had "charged and sentenced" the Russian Federation.
Milic told Belgrade’s Vecernje Novostia newspaper by telephone from the Serbian Embassy in Podgorica that the verdict against him was a “horrible” case of the court that was willing “to play with human lives.”
The opposition Socialist People’s Party of Montenegro said justice and due process have been undermined by the verdict.
"In this politically motivated and rigged trial, the insolence, superficiality, and obedience of the Montenegrin judiciary system was exposed,” it said in a statement.
Calling the charges “fake and rigged,” it said “some irresponsible people” are trying to “blame Serbia and Russia” for Montenegro’s internal political disputes.
In Belgrade, Serbia's right-wing Dveri political movement on May 9 said the verdict against Montenegro’s pro-Russian opposition leaders and the nine citizens of Serbia was not legitimate.
"It is a continuation of repression against Serbs in which the accused couldn't have a fair trial having in mind the overall situation in Montenegro and the Serbophobia that's not vanishing,” Dveri said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement calling the verdict "a clear victory for the rule of law" and criticizing "Russia's brazen attempt to undermine the sovereignty of an independent European nation."
The U.S. Embassy in Podgorica posted on Twitter that the trial was "open and transparent" and sent "a strong message about the unacceptability of efforts to undermine democracy."
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote that the "failed coup attempt in Montenegro [was] another example of Russia's outrageous attempts to undermine European democracy" and called on Moscow to follow "a better path."
Montenegro in June 2017 became the 29th member of NATO, a step that was bitterly criticized by Russia and opposed by some Montenegrins who advocate closer ties with Moscow.
Ahead of the May 9 guilty verdicts, the Democratic Front warned that a conviction of its leaders, Mandic and Knezevic, would risk "irremediably destabilizing Montenegro."
Djukanovic was elected president in 2018. His Democratic Party of Socialists has ruled Montenegro virtually unchallenged for decades.
But his government is currently facing regular demonstrations by protesters who accuse it of corruption and authoritarianism.