| Sasa Sindjelic before the court in Podgorica on Thursday. Photo: Youtube screenshot.|
The main prosecution witness in the coup case trial, Sasa Sindjelic, on Thursday directly accused the Russian state of being behind last year’s alleged plot to overthrow the government in Montenegro, supporting and financing it to stop the administration in Podgorica from joining NATO.
According to the prosecution, Sindjelic is the only person who had a direct contact with two Russians - Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, both believed to be military intelligence officers - who are accused of being the masterminds behind the alleged plot to stage a coup on election day in Montenegro on October 16, 2016.
At a hearing broadcast live by several TV stations in the country, Sindjelic told the court how he met Shishmakov and gave details of numerous alleged meetings in Moscow in 2015 and 2016 and the organisation and logistics of the plot.
Sindjelic, who said that he is a Serbian nationalist and monarchist, but also a pan-Slavist who opposes borders among the Serbs, told the court that he started to visit Russia more frequently in 2015. maintaining contact with Shishmakov.
He recalled receiving a “strange” message about Montenegro from Shishmakov in March 2016, a few months before the election.
“It's enough. It cannot be tolerated anymore. In Montenegro, the authorities should be toppled, [then Prime Minister Milo] Djukanovic... that gang,” Sindjelic quoted the alleged message from the Russian intelligence officer as saying.
He also said that on several occasions he got money from Russian to organise the coup in Montenegro.
“Four times I got 25,000 euros and twice I got 50,000,” he said, explaining that the money was intended to be used to pay people to come to Montenegro to organise the plot and buy the weapons.
In his five-hour-long testimony, Sindjelic sharply accused the leadership of the main opposition group in Montenegro, the pro-Russian Democratic Front alliance, of betraying him and a group of Serbian citizens who were tasked with coming to Montenegro, provoking violence on election day and helping the Front to seize power.
When he learned that they had been betrayed, Sindjelic said he had surrendered voluntarily to the Montenegrin authorities.
"If the people from the Front wanted to create a plot they would have done it, a lot of money was given by Moscow, they had weapons, people from inside, special teams,” Sindjelic claimed.
"If I had not surrendered myself I would have been killed... I think that somebody is protecting those people," he said.
The Front’s leaders, Andrija Mandic and Milian Knezevic, who are both indicted in the coup case, were in the courtroom and loudly commented on and ridiculed Sindjelic's testimony.
The judge in the case, Suzana Mugosa, warned them several times and then removed them from the courtroom.
Sindjelic was one of 20 Serbian citizens, including a former Serbian police general, Bratislav Dikic, to be accused in Montenegro on October 16 in connection with the alleged plot.
Their apparent motive was to assassinate then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in a coup that would then bring the pro-Russian opposition to power.
In an unexpected twist, after Sindjelic was accused by the Montenegrin prosecution of being one of the main people in the criminal gang that was behind the coup, he was given protected witness status last November.
According to the investigators, whose findings were leaked to the media, Sindjelic received 200,000 euros from the Russians and distributed the cash to other members of the criminal group tasked with staging the coup.
They also alleged that Sindjelic was responsible for recruiting other members of the organisation, transferring money between the organisers and members of the group, providing weapons and phones, and buying police equipment, uniforms, shields, batons, body armour, tear gas, gas masks and other equipment to be used by the group in the attack.
For months, legal experts and Montenegro’s opposition parties have criticised the court’s decision to grant protected witness status to Sindjelic.
The opposition has alleged that Sindjelic was tasked by the prosecution with framing others.
It has also accused the prosecution of fabricating claims that Russian and Serbian nationalists plotted a coup to discredit the opposition.
Several legal experts have also claimed that Sindjelic could not be granted witness status as he was the main suspect in the case, which is classified as an "attempted terror attack".