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Macedonian Court Convicts 33 People of Planning Terrorist Attacks

Heavily armed Macedonian police guard the premises of a court, during the final verdict for 37 people arrested and charged with terrorism-related offenses for clashes with Macedonian police in 2015 in Kumanovo, in Skopje, Macedonia, Nov. 2, 2017.

A court in Macedonia on Thursday convicted 33 people of planning terrorist attacks as members of an ethnic Albanian militant group.

Heavy security, including helicopters flying overhead, protected the court proceedings in Skopje. Armored vehicles and at least 100 police officers deployed around the courthouse to safeguard the participants in the highly anticipated trial.

Seven of the accused were given life sentences, 13 got 40-year sentences, and the rest got sentences of 12 to 20 years, all on charges including terrorism and participating in a terrorist organization.

Four defendants were acquitted. Attorneys for the defendants said the proceedings were "a classic show trial" and derided the length of their clients' sentences.

"We didn't expect fair sentences, but we also didn't expect such a draconian ruling," said attorney Naser Raufi. He called for an independent investigation of the proceedings.

Those tried were arrested in a police raid and gunfight in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo on May 9, 2015. In the battle following the raid, 22 militants and eight Macedonian officers died.

The raid was conducted in response to an attack by armed men on a border post. Some of the attackers were former fighters from the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, a militia that had fought in the 2001 insurgency in Macedonia that killed scores of people.

The insurgency ended with a deal providing greater rights for ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. Ethnic Albanians now make up about one-quarter of the Macedonian population of 2.1 million.

Some of the defendants were ethnic Albanians from Macedonia, while others were from neighboring Kosovo.

The Albanian National Liberation Army disbanded in 2002. Some of its leaders went into politics.

Lilica Kitanovska of VOA's Macedonian service contributed to this report.