‘Stalling Tactics’ Could Scupper North Macedonia Ex-PM’s Trial
The high-profile trial in which former premier Nikola Gruevski is accused of ordering a political opponent’s building to be demolished out of revenge may have to start all over again next year as the court failed to wrap it up by Tuesday before one of the judges retires, possibly rendering the entire process so far null and void.
The next hearing is set for January 17. But the fate of the case against Gruevski and six others is now in the hands of the country’s Judicial Council, a governing body, which should decide on Wednesday whether there are grounds to postpone the retirement of the judge.
Should the judge retire, the Skopje criminal court will have no other option in January but to conclude that the trial has to start again from the beginning.
Over the last two weeks, the courtroom has seen tensions rise as the defendants and their lawyers came up with various excuses that stalled progress in the trial.
When the presiding judge tried last week to speed up the procedure, which was already nearing its finish, four lawyers for the seven defendants in the case did not show up, insisting they were too busy.
The court fined them and appointed new lawyers, who have asked for a one-day postponement to get acquainted with the case.
The trial was about to resume on Monday, but did not because one defendant, the former mayor of Skopje’s municipality of Gazi Baba, Toni Trajkovski, did not show up because of a reported attack on him, prompting the judge to order him to be brought to court on Tuesday.
But Trajkovski’s lawyer insisted that his client was too badly injured, meaning that there was no chance of wrapping up the trial and issuing the verdict on Tuesday.
The prosecution in the case and the presiding judge have on several occasions expressed suspicions that such excuses are just a stalling tactics to buy time until a new trial.
According to the charges, former PM Gruevski, right after the 2011 general elections, directly ordered the demolition of a residential building owned by Fiat Canovski, who at the time was an MP and leader of a small political party.
Gruevski allegedly acted out of revenge because Canovski’s party had left the ruling alliance led by Gruevski’s right-wing VMRO DPMNE party.
Gruevski was tried in absentia because he slipped out of the country at the end of last year, escaping from serving his two-year jail term in another high-profile case in which he was found guilty of the illicit purchase of a luxury limousine. He was granted asylum in Hungary.
The second accused in the case is the former transport minister in Gruevski’s government, Mile Janakieski, while the third is Trajkovski.
The charges say that the destruction of the building was coordinated by Janakieski using a false pretext that the construction did not follow the regulations. He was helped logistically by Skopje’s Gazi Baba municipality, which was led by Trajkovski.
Several other former office-holders are also on trial in the case for their participation. All the defendants have pleaded not guilty.
The public first heard about the affair through the publishing of wiretap recordings in 2015.
The trial started in January 2018 and has been dragging on for two years. Since then, 46 court sessions have been scheduled, but 17 of them were postponed mostly due to the absence of the defendants or their lawyers, or changes of defence lawyers in mid-trial.
Gruevski, the long-standing leader of the right-wing VMRO DPMNE party and prime minister from 2006 until 2016, was widely accused of authoritarian behaviour and of fostering corruption. He is also a suspect or accused in several other ongoing investigations and court cases.