"Trial of the century" opens in Montenegro

By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia September 6, 2017

Montenegro’s “trial of the century”, as it has been dubbed by local media, began at the Podgorica high court on September 6, after being delayed twice. The trial of those suspected of involvement in a failed coup attempt in October 2016 started with the interrogation of former Serbian police commander Bratislav Dikic, who pleaded not guilty.

The coup attempt coincided with Montenegro’s general election, and prosecutors say the plan was to take the parliament by force and assassinate the country’s then prime minister Milo Djukanovic. 

His government had led Montenegro towards Nato membership, angering Moscow which previously had a close relationship with the small Balkan state. Two Russians are accused of being behind the plot, and the trial should shed light on recent revelations indicating that the Russian security services were involved. 

To secure transparency and avoid any doubts over the fairness of the trial, the high court allowed live broadcasting. This has been attracting extremely high interest from Montenegrins, who have been following the case avidly and hope to finally hear whether there actually was a plot — the opposition claims it was staged by Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) — and if so whether Russia was involved.

On the first day of trial, Dikic said he came to Montenegro to visit a monastery and pray for his health. The former police commander allegedly suffers from cancer and has chosen alternative treatments which he said were supposed to include herbs obtained by the monastery. The trial was paused twice upon the request of Dikic, who said he got tired due to his health condition.

“I wanted to pray at the monastery for my health and to take some alternative medications. Of all those indicted I only know my friend Kristina Hristic with whom I actually came to Montenegro, and Aleksandar Sindjelic, because he has sent me a message on Facebook that he wants to meet me,” Dikic told the rather small courtroom.

Dikic denied any involvement in the plot, and claimed he had not been aware of any criminal organisation aiming to seize power in Montenegro.

“I have never been a member of a criminal organisation and I would never be. The indictment is unfounded. I am against violence,” Dikic said.

Dikic has also claimed he had been misled by Sindjelic, whom he only wanted to help.

"My kindness has destroyed me as I only wanted to help Sindjelic and do him a favour," he said, but provided no details. At the same time, Dikic said that Sindjelic had given him $500 to help him buy medications and claimed he had looked up the location of Montenegro's parliament when planning his trip.

However, prosecutors say he was the leader of 20 Serbian paramilitaries arrested on the night of October 15 on suspicion of planning to disrupt the general election the next day. Most of them agreed to testify in exchange for shorter jail sentences. During the investigation, the prosecution revealed that two of the leaders of the pro-Russian opposition Democratic Front (DF) – Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic and two Russians were involved in the plot alongside the Serbs.

The prosecution has accused the two Russians – Eduard Sirokov and Vladimir Popov – of organising the plot. Sirokov was also accused of “preparing acts against the constitutional order and security of Montenegro through incitement” and terrorism. According to earlier media reports, the prosecution has also discovered that Sirokov is a member of the Russian security services.

Mandic and Knezevic were accused along with 10 others of creating a criminal organisation. On February 15, the parliament stripped them of their immunity, allowing their arrest by the special prosecution, although they were not in fact arrested.

The opening days of the trial was rowdy at times, as two of the lawyers interrupted proceedings and the judge leading the trial – Suzana Mugosa – fined them €500 for violating court discipline. Mugosa also ordered several DF members to leave the courtroom when they laughed out loud, and interrupted the trial. 

Dikic’s lawyer Milovan Petrovic asked for the trial to be moved to a bigger room so that his friends and relatives, as well as more journalists, could follow the trial, but his request was denied.

Several dozen DF supporters stood outside the court during the hearing, but no violent incidents have been reported.

The trial will continue on September 7 when Dikic will resume his defence.