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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 December, 2003, 12:45 GMT
Djindjic 'sniper' remains silent
Zvezdan Jovanovic, alleged sniper
Zvezdan Jovanovic is accused of pulling the trigger
The former police officer suspected of killing Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic has refused to enter a plea at his trial in Belgrade.

Zvezdan Jovanovic, 38, a former member of the feared paramilitary Red Berets unit, accused the authorities of conducting a witch hunt against him.

He is one of 36 people charged with the murder or with gangland crimes.

Twenty-one are in court. The others - including the alleged mastermind - are being tried in their absence.

I have been convicted before even entering this courtroom
Zvezdan Jovanovic
Prosecutors claim the killing was carried out by Serbian nationalists opposed to Mr Djindjic's co-operation with the war crimes tribunal, and to a threatened clampdown on gangs.

He was shot by a sniper as he got out of his car in Belgrade in March.

Mr Jovanovic is charged with firing the fatal sniper shot that killed the prime minister.

His defence team claims he was pressured into a confession during a police interrogation.

Silent

On Wednesday, Mr Jovanovic told the court: "I have been convicted before even entering this courtroom and therefore I do not have confidence in this court and the judiciary of this country and use my right to defend myself with silence."

The indictment against the accused men says alleged mafia bosses "planned the activities of the organisation through violence over a long period of time until they could take power".

Their goal was achieving profit and power and their plans included the killing of the prime minister and other officials to create a "feeling of insecurity among citizens", the indictment adds.

The trial is being held in a specially-constructed top-security courtroom, with the defendants housed in a dock behind bullet-proof glass.

It is being seen as a major test of the Serbian judiciary in the post-Milosevic era.

Some of the 36 defendants are former members of the elite paramilitary Red Berets unit.

'Mastermind'

The alleged mastermind, Milorad Lukovic - also known as Legija - is a former commander of the unit.

Thirteen of the defendants face charges of direct involvement in the murder.

The case involves more than 80 defence lawyers.

The murder trial started less than a week before parliamentary elections on 28 December.

The BBC's Gabriel Partos says Mr Djindjic's successors in the Democratic Party may be hoping that the case will bring them a sympathy vote.


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