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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 May 2007, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Analysis: Marathon Djindjic trial
By Gabriel Partos
BBC South-East Europe analyst

Assassinated Serb Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic
Mr Djindjic was said to be planning a crackdown on organised crime
A special court in Belgrade has found 12 men guilty of the assassination of Serbia's reformist prime minister Zoran Djindjic, who was gunned down four years ago.

The marathon trial has been under way since December 2003.

The prosecution has portrayed the accused as part of a conspiracy whose purpose, by killing Prime Minister Djindjic, was to halt his pro-Western reforms - most importantly co-operation with the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Mr Djindjic had earlier handed over to the tribunal Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's former authoritarian president and wartime leader.

Several of the defendants are former members of the now disbanded Special Operations Unit - the paramilitary wing of the state security police, also known as the Red Berets.

Those among the Red Berets who had fought in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia or Kosovo during the 1990s had reason to fear that they, too, might be put on trial for war crimes.

They were joined in the dock by figures from Belgrade's once powerful criminal underworld.

Key figure

The mafia groups probably expected the dynamic and increasingly self-confident Mr Djindjic was about to order a crackdown on Belgrade's organised crime network, which had for years been closely intertwined with the security apparatus created during the Milosevic era.

Milorad Ulemek (front right) at court
Milorad Ulemek is accused of masterminding the killing
Among those who perhaps best personified this symbiotic relationship is Milorad Ulemek, also known as Legija because of his service in the French Foreign Legion, and by the pseudonym Milorad Lukovic.

A former commander of the Red Berets, Mr Ulemek is believed to have become a key figure in one of Belgrade's mafia outfits, the Zemun gang.

Mr Ulemek, the most prominent figure among the accused, was charged with ordering Mr Djindjic's assassination.

The man who allegedly pulled the trigger on 12 March 2003 as Prime Minister Djindjic was about to enter the government building in Belgrade was Zvezdan Jovanovic, nicknamed Zveki, a former deputy commander of the Red Berets.

Mr Jovanovic admitted his guilt while awaiting trial, and his lawyers' subsequent attempts to rule his confession inadmissible were dismissed by Serbia's Supreme Court.

Although the trial has been underway before the court for three-and-a-half years, many of the circumstances surrounding the Djindjic assassination and related events remain shrouded in mystery.

Political plot mooted

Above all, no answer has been provided to the question of whether there was a wider political conspiracy behind the Djindjic murder plot.

Although one of the self-confessed conspirators, Dejan Milenkovic, known as Bugsy, has made wide-ranging allegations against a number of Serb politicians, these have lacked coherence and have not been backed by evidence.

Supporters of Mr Djindjic at the cemetery, with former PM Zoran Zivkovic in the middle, frowning
Mr Djindjic's killing sent shockwaves through Serbia
The failure to uncover a possible political plot behind the Djindjic murder has prompted Srdja Popovic, a lawyer for the Djindjic family, to say that it will take some future trial "to reveal the genuine organisers and initiators of the assassination".

There are other intriguing aspects to this case, not least of which is why Mr Ulemek, who had been in hiding, should have voluntarily surrendered to the police six months after the trial opened in his absence.

If he expected to benefit from doing a deal with the judiciary, he has been sorely disappointed.

In a separate trial he has already been sentenced to 40 years' imprisonment - the maximum penalty under Serbia's criminal code - for the murder of Ivan Stambolic, Mr Milosevic's predecessor as Serbian president.

Mr Ulemek was also given 15 years for the attempted assassination of the recently-replaced Foreign Minister, Vuk Draskovic, who was at the time a vocal opponent of Mr Milosevic.

State of emergency

Mr Milosevic, who died last year, avoided trial in the Stambolic and Draskovic cases because at the time he was in the dock on genocide and war crimes charges before The Hague Tribunal.

Milorad Ulemek (archive image)
Milorad Ulemek's surrender came six months after the trial started

The consequences of the Djindjic assassination have continued to have an impact on Serbia.

On the positive side, far from preventing a crackdown on organised crime, Mr Djindjic's murder prompted the proclamation of a state of emergency to deal with the criminal underworld.

As a result, many of Belgrade's once-feared gangland bosses are now either dead or behind bars.

However, Serbia's co-operation with The Hague Tribunal has slackened since the nationalist Vojislav Kostunica took over as prime minister in early 2004.

As a result, the European Union froze its pre-accession talks with Belgrade a year ago.

Many Serbs believe their country would by now have forged much closer links with the EU if Mr Djindjic's term in office had not been cut short by his murder.

It is even conceivable that Mr Djindjic, a pragmatist to his bone, might have been able to come up with the kind of compromise deal over the future of Serbia's independence-seeking province of Kosovo, which has so far eluded his successors.

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