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Macedonian opposition chief charged over wiretapping scandal

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SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's political crisis accelerated Friday after prosecutors charged the leader of the main left-wing opposition party and four others for alleged involvement in a wiretapping scandal that has gripped the small Balkan country for months.

Zoran Zaev's Social Democrat party responded by accusing the government of manipulating the judiciary.

In the past months, Zaev has released a stream of wiretapped material that he claims reveals widespread corruption and abuse of power by the governing VMRO-DPMNE party. He says Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's government is behind the illegal wiretapping of 20,000 Macedonians, and that he got access to the material from "patriots" in the intelligence service.

Gruevski denies those allegations. He says the wiretaps were the work of unspecified foreign spies and has accused Zaev of using the allegations to plot a coup.

Both sides in the conflict agree that thousands of phone conversations involving police, judges, foreign diplomats, religious leaders and journalists have been illegally recorded.

The European Union, which Macedonia hopes to join, has expressed serious concern about the wiretapping allegations, demanding an independent investigation.

Late Thursday, prosecutors formally accused Zaev of "violence against the representatives of the highest state institutions."

Zaev, who denies the charges, faces a minimum 4-year prison sentence if convicted.

His party claimed Friday that Gruevski and the country's intelligence chief were behind the decision to charge Zaev.

"We have published evidence and arguments that the whole system in Macedonia is under the control of" the government, it said.

The office of the prosecutor for organized crime and corruption also charged the former intelligence chief, his wife and a former employee with espionage and unauthorized wiretapping. A local government official faces the same charges as Zaev. All four have been in prison since police arrested them in January.

Zaev himself was not arrested, but he has been banned from leaving the country.

A senior judicial council will decide whether and when the five should stand trial.

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