PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — A Montenegro court on Thursday sentenced two Russian military intelligence operatives and 11 others to up to 15 years in prison for plotting to overthrow the Balkan country's government and prevent it from joining NATO.
The two Russians, identified as Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, were tried in absentia and convicted of attempted terrorism and creating a criminal organization.
The verdict said the group planned to take over the parliament in Montenegro on election day — Oct. 16, 2016 — assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and install a pro-Russia, anti-NATO leadership in the Adriatic Sea nation.
The U.S. Embassy in the capital of Podgorica said the verdict against the reported operatives from the GRU Russian military intelligence service and others represents a "historic day for the rule of law" in Montenegro.
"The open and transparent trial represents an important step forward for the rule of law and sends a strong message about the unacceptability of efforts to undermine democracy," the U.S. Embassy said.
The U.S. and its allies have accused the GRU of involvement in a 2018 nerve agent attack on a Russian ex-spy in Britain, hacking the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and disrupting anti-doping efforts in world sports. Russian authorities have rejected those accusations, calling them part of a Western smear campaign against Russia.
Shishmakov received a 15-year prison term while Popov got 12 years. Two leading ethnic Serb opposition politicians, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, were sentenced to five years each. The other nine others convicted received verdicts ranging from 8 years in jail to suspended sentences.
Montenegro joined NATO in June 2017 as the military alliance's 29th member despite strong opposition from Moscow, which considers the country a historic Slavic ally and is opposed to NATO's enlargement.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied involvement in the Montenegro coup plot.
Shishmakov, however, had been a deputy military attache at the Russian embassy in Warsaw and was declared persona non grata in Poland in 2014 because it believed he was involved in spying.
Montenegro's security services said they thwarted the coup attempt after receiving tips from Western spy organizations.
The lawyers for the convicted Serbs said they will appeal, calling the verdict "a political fabrication."
"What I heard today is a political message: the Russian Federation is guilty, the Serbian people are guilty," said lawyer Miroje Jovanovic. "That's really scandalous."
The verdict said the two convicted Russians coordinated the attempted coup from neighboring Serbia. They were allowed by Serbia's pro-Russia authorities to leave for Moscow despite reports that they had encrypted mobile phones and other sophisticated spy equipment.
The judge in Montenegro, Suzana Mugosa, said while reading the lengthy verdict that the Russians provided at least 200,000 euros ($224,500) to buy rifles and guns. She said they tried to recruit "as many people as possible to come to the protest" and try to "change the electoral will" and prevent Montenegro from joining NATO.
The judge said the two ethnic Serb politicians made several trips on the eve of the election to Moscow, where they were believed to have gotten instructions from the GRU operatives.
"Each member of the criminal organization had a task and role that had been previously determined and the criminal organization was ready to implement violence and intimidation," she said.
This story corrects the length of sentences given to nine other defendants to ranging from 8 years in jail to suspended sentences.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.