Montenegro begins trial of alleged pro-Russian coup plotters

PODGORICA (Reuters) - The trial of 14 people in Montenegro accused of an election day plot to kill the prime minister and bring a pro-Russian party to power began on Wednesday, with defense lawyers demanding the state prosecutor be removed from the case.

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Montenegro says a group of Serb and Russian nationalists had a plan to attack state institutions on the day of an election last year and kill then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who held the post for a total of 21 years.

The Kremlin has dismissed the accusation as absurd. Montenegro’s opposition accuses the government of fabricating the plot in order to keep Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists in power, which it did by a narrow win.

“This is a politically staged process,” said an aide to Andrija Mandic, one of two pro-Russian opposition leaders on trial.

The defendants include 2 Russians, 9 Serbians and 3 Montenegrins, of which four are being tried in absentia. Among them are two Russian nationals accused of masterminding the plot.

At the first hearing on Wednesday, defense lawyers called for state prosecutor Milivoj Katnic to be dismissed from the case after his office published a transcript of a conversation between a defendant and his lawyer on its website on Monday.

“It is clear that after this the prosecutor has to stop working on this case,” said Mandic’s lawyer, Miroje Jovanovic.

A spokeswoman at the state prosecutor’s office denied to comment.

Montenegro says one of the aims of the coup attempt was to prevent it from joining NATO, which it did in June this year.

Montenegro and other countries in the region fear meddling from Moscow to further what they believe is a Russian foreign policy of expansion.

No date has been set for the next hearing.

Reporting by Petar Komnenic; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky