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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 June, 2004, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
In court with Djindjic suspect
By Matt Prodger
BBC correspondent in Belgrade

The man accused of masterminding the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic last year has begun giving evidence to a court in Belgrade.

Milorad Ulemek, also known as Milorad Lukovic or Legija, gave himself up to police last month after a year in hiding. He denies the charges against him.

Milorad Lukovic at court
Lukovic's appearance in court sparked a media frenzy
Belgrade's Special Court is impressive by anyone's standards. Just a year old, it was built to try war crimes cases, and inside it looks remarkably like The Hague tribunal: modern, hi-tech and airy.

Video screens and loudspeakers relay the proceedings to those in the public and press galleries who can't quite see what's happening on the floor of the court.

And everybody wants a good view just now, because the man in the dock is Legija - former foreign legionnaire, paramilitary leader, chief of an elite state security force, and also, allegedly, a key figure in Belgrade's criminal underworld.

He stands accused of organising the assassination of Serbia's former prime minister. At the moment, Serbia's front pages are full of little else.

New guard

People are usually queuing outside an hour before the trial begins. Security is tight. The court is guarded by the "Zendarmerija", the anti-terrorist police that replaced Mr Lukovic's own "Red Berets" unit when it was disbanded under Mr Djindjic. An irony surely not lost on Mr Lukovic.

At 1000 sharp, Mr Lukovic is led into the court, always in a suit, open-necked shirt and handcuffs. Occasionally there is a glimpse of a red rose tattoo on his neck.

Aleksandra, wife of Milorad Lukovic
Mr Lukovic's wife watches from behind a glass panel
He is followed by several co-defendants, among them Zvezdan Jovanovic, allegedly the sniper who shot Mr Djindjic outside a government building in March 2003. The defendants are separated by a few metres, occasionally smiling or nodding in acknowledgement of one another.

There are two public galleries, one above the other. In the top one sits Mr Djindjic's mother, dwarfed by a burly bodyguard. Occasionally she tuts loudly during Mr Lukovic's testimony, turning to her bodyguard in consternation. You can see her son in her face.

Below, is the second gallery; the defendants' families and supporters. Mr Lukovic's wife takes the centre seat in the first row, separated from her husband by a pane of bullet-proof glass.

Chuckles and groans

As he speaks, Mr Lukovic's figure looms large courtesy of two plasma screens facing the galleries. It has an unnerving effect. As he raises his eyes to the judge he appears to stare straight at his friends and enemies watching behind him.

He speaks quietly and confidently, and in these early days of the trial, without interruption. He talks about the drug smuggling he says he carried out on behalf of senior Democratic Party figures, meetings with members of the Djindjic government and his shock at hearing news of the prime minister's assassination.

In the press gallery a crowd of journalists watch the plasma screen intently. There are occasional gaps, chuckles and groans as Mr Lukovic gives his testimony.

During the recess, witnesses, families, lawyers and journalists spill out into the same corridor. The buzz of conversation is accompanied by the smell of the Balkans: coffee and cigarettes.

There will be many more days like this and for the Serbian public only one other trial can rival it: Slobodan Milosevic - expected to resume in The Hague this summer.




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