PODGORICA -- A Montenegrin court has scrapped the guilty verdicts handed down in relation to a plot to overthrow the government in 2016.
The Appeals Court on February 5 annulled the first-instance verdicts issued against 13 defendants in the so-called “plot coup” trial, citing “significant violations of criminal procedure,” and asked the High Court to retry the case.
In May 2019, members of the group were convicted on terrorism charges and creating a criminal organization as part of an October 2016 attempt to overthrow the government and undermine the country's NATO membership bid.
The High Court handed members of the group a total of nearly 70 years in prison -- the lengthiest of 15 and 12 years given to alleged Russian military intelligence officers (GRU) -- concluding a trial that the then-opposition claimed was politically led.
Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, two pro-Russian leaders of the Democratic Front that is now part of the ruling coalition, and eight citizens of Serbia were among the convicts. The two Russians, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, were sentenced in absentia.
The court found that the group plotted to occupy the country's parliament during 2016 parliamentary elections, assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, and install a pro-Russian leadership.
Russia has denied any involvement.
"We do not feel any satisfaction or joy. We are politically persecuted in a rigged procedure,” Knezevic said after the Appeals Court's ruling.
Speaking at the same press conference, Mandic said the “rigged” court process must be investigated and that all those involved “will have to face the law and justice," pointing his finger at Djukanovic.
Djukanovic, who staunchly supported NATO accession, has been serving as the president of Montenegro since 2018.
His long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) had ruled the Balkan country since the early 1990s until a three-member coalition led by the Democratic Front came to power following general elections held in August 2020.