PODGORICA, Montenegro: A Montenegro court on Thursday handed jail sentences to 14 people including two opposition politicians over an alleged plot to overthrow the government with Russian help in 2016.

Pro-Russian opposition leaders Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic were given five years in prison for being part of a “criminal organisation” whose aim was to “prevent Montenegro from joining Nato”, judge Suzana Mugosa said.

Two Russian men, who prosecutors said were intelligence officers, were handed the heaviest sentences of 12 and 15 years in absentia.

Several Serbians were also convicted, including a former police general and anti-NATO activist.

Moscow has denied any involvement in the plot that was allegedly planned on the day of parliamentary elections in October 2016.

Ahead of the verdict, the opposition Democratic Front warned that a conviction of its leaders would risk “irremediably destabilising Montenegro”.

Since the trial opened a year and a half ago, the pro-Russian opposition has decried it as a “staged political trial” and government-backed “witch hunt” aimed at destroying their political camp.

Their coalition was the main opposition force against current President and then-prime minister Milo Djukanovic at the time.

“Without this so-called coup d’etat, the regime would certainly be in opposition today,” opposition leader Mandic said at the trial’s close in March.

He accused Djukanovic of taking advantage of a “wave of anti-Russian hysteria to attack” his opponents.

The politicians are expected to appeal the ruling.

Questions remain

Observers say the months-long trial still left many questions unanswered.

The weapons that the plotters allegedly planned to use were never shown in court.

According to the indictment, dozens of cases of automatic weapons and three cases of ammunition were thrown into a lake in a neighbouring country.

Prosecutors later said that a Serbian who provided the weapons ultimately destroyed them at the request of Montenegrin justice.

“Without these weapons, the story of a violent overthrow of power is unconvincing,” Dragan Soc, a lawyer and Montenegro’s former justice minister, told AFP ahead of the ruling.

“Firm material evidence” was missing, he added.

One of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Serbian national Aleksandar Sindjelic, also reversed his testimony.

Sindjelic initially told the court the Democratic Front was “financed by money from Russia” that would have aided the coup.

But in March, just before the end of the trial, he told a Serbian television channel that there had been no “plan of violence in Podgorica”, only a anti-NATO “protest”.

The court did not bring him back to the witness stand, saying his reversal was expressed outside any judicial framework.

In the years since the alleged coup attempt, Djukanovic was elected President in 2018, Montenegro joined Nato and the government continued its negotiations for accession to the European Union.

The opposition’s Democratic Front remains weakened.

Djukanovic has dominated Montenegro’s politics from the 1990s onwards, when late strongman Slobodan Milosevic installed him at the helm of the former Yugoslav republic.

But he went on to lead Montenegro’s independence in 2006 and made a strategic decision to turn towards the West.