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Last Updated: Monday, 23 February, 2004, 02:42 GMT
Analysis: Stambolic murder trial
By Gabriel Partos
BBC south-east Europe analyst

Ivan Stambolic
Stambolic was seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2000
The trial of suspects allegedly behind the murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic has opened in Belgrade.

The group is also accused of the attempted assassination of the prominent politician, Vuk Draskovic.

According to the indictment, both crimes dating back to 2000 were committed on the orders of then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Mr Milosevic will not be at the new Special Court for serious crimes as he is already standing trial in The Hague.

For the past two months Serbia's judiciary has been grappling with what has been the country's politically most devastating crime of the early 21st Century - the assassination of reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

The Djindjic case is linked to the trial of Ivan Stambolic's alleged murderers, if for no other reason, because it was during the massive crackdown on organised crime that followed Mr Djindjic's killing in March 2003 that those now charged in the Stambolic case were arrested.

Mr Djindjic's alleged assassin was an assistant commander of the elite police force, the Special Operations Unit - known as the Red Berets - which was set up under Mr Milosevic.

And those now on trial in the Stambolic case include members of the Red Berets hit-squad accused of kidnapping and subsequently murdering the ex-president on the eve of the Yugoslav presidential elections in 2000.

Joining them in the dock is Mr Milosevic's loyal secret police chief, Rade Markovic.

'Political threat'

The prosecution argues that Mr Stambolic's murder had been ordered by Mr Milosevic - the victim's long-time friend and protege - who ousted the moderate Mr Stambolic from power when he adopted the Serb nationalist cause in 1987 and switched Communist Party policy accordingly.

In the case of Stambolic, it will be shown... that [Slobodan Milosevic] gave the order to kill Stambolic
Nikola Barovic, Stambolic family lawyer
But why would Mr Milosevic want to see Mr Stambolic killed more than a decade after he had removed his one-time mentor from office?

"Mr Stambolic was a prominent political figure even after he was overthrown from the position of president of Serbia in 1987," said Nikola Barovic, the Stambolic family's lawyer.

"He was the person who was recognised as an important figure, and he was showing that he could do everything which was impossible for Milosevic.

"He could keep a stable and friendly relationship with all other ex-Yugoslav republics, from Macedonia to Slovenia, and - inside Yugoslavia - with Montenegro.

"I think that was one of the motives why Milosevic gave the order to kill Mr Stambolic."

Mr Barovic's argument suggests that the well-connected Mr Stambolic remained at least a potential threat to Mr Milosevic - particularly in the wake of the Kosovo conflict of 1999 when Serbia under its authoritarian leader seemed destined to linger in continuing international isolation.

Cases linked

The Stambolic murder was not the only political crime blamed on Mr Milosevic during the turmoil that preceded the presidential elections of 2000.

Slobodan Milosevic
Milosevic ousted Stambolic from power
A leading opposition politician, Vuk Draskovic, was twice targeted for assassination.

The first attempt, involving a lorry that crashed into his convoy of cars and killed four of his associates, has already resulted in several convictions.

In the second attempt, shots were fired at Mr Draskovic while he was staying in the Montenegrin resort of Budva.

The reason the Stambolic and Draskovic cases are linked in one trial is that seven of the 10 accused - including secret police chief Mr Markovic - were allegedly implicated in both crimes.

Two important figures will not be in court.

Serbia's most wanted man, Milorad Lukovic, a former commander of the Red Berets, who is also accused of having masterminded the Djindjic assassination, remains a fugitive from justice.

He is being tried in absentia.

Mr Milosevic himself is in The Hague - perhaps half way through his trial for war crimes committed by Serbian forces in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.

The Belgrade court has separated his case from the rest of the accused, and it is hoping to try him once The Hague trial is over.

Reputation on line

But while Mr Milosevic is not among the accused at the Stambolic trial, what will the case do to his reputation back home in Serbia?

"That will completely ruin his reputation - whatever is left of his reputation," said Ms Barovic.

"Because up to now - meaning about the trial before the international tribunal - he is charged as a president he is not personally someone who was doing a criminal activity.

"In the case of Stambolic, it will be shown - and it is already shown in the investigation - that he gave the order to kill Stambolic and that he was personally involved in killing."

There is another reason why Mr Milosevic's reputation could suffer.

His defiant performance at The Hague tribunal has earned him support in Serbia.

Many Serbs continue to see themselves as the main victims of the break-up of the old Yugoslavia and they tend to gloss over the war crimes committed against non-Serbs.

But their view of their former leader would change considerably if the trial were to confirm Mr Milosevic's personal involvement in the pre-meditated murder of another Serb politician.

Milosevic denies rival's murder
24 Aug 03  |  Europe
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08 Apr 03  |  Europe
Milosevic rival's remains found
28 Mar 03  |  Europe

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