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Prosecution Plan to Torpedo Legija Defence

Legija may have little to stand on unless he can prove sensational claims about the involvement of senior officials in drugs smuggling.
By IWPR staff

Milorad “Legija” Ulemek’s initial testimony in the Zoran Djindjic murder trial, implicating leading members of the late premier's Democratic Party, DS, in drug trafficking, may be proved false, so strenghtening the indictment against him, IWPR sources close to the Serbian prosecutor’s office suggest.

The Serbian police and judiciary are currently investigating a drugs trafficking case after the former head of a special police unit, who is a prime suspect in the 2003 assassination of the Serbian premier, said in his first appearance in court that he had transferred over 600 kilogrammes of heroin to Romania, Croatia and Bosnia on the orders of four close Djindjic allies: Cedomir Jovanovic, former deputy prime minister, Vladimir “Beba” Popovic, ex-chief of the Government Communications Bureau, Dragoljub Markovic, a businessman close to the DS, and Dusan Spasojevic, the Zemun gang leader, killed in a clash with police last year.

An IWPR source from Serbia’s interior ministry, MUP, said the drugs took the form of heroin shipments seized by Serbian police on three occasions late in 1996 and in 1997 on the Bulgarian border.

The heroin was found on March 8, 2001 in the vaults of a Belgrade bank, where the state security service and the police criminal department had apparently stashed it on the eve of the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when Slobodan Milosevic was in power.

According to the official version of events, the drugs from the bank vaults were incinerated the next day in the furnaces of a thermo-electric power plant near Belgrade.

Two IWPR sources from the Special Prosecution Office said police had already delivered documents to the office disputing Legija’s claims. “These papers certainly will not play into Legija’s hands,” one said, though the source did not grant IWPR permission to see the documents in question.

Another judicial source said Legija had done himself a disservice by making such a statement, presenting the Special Prosecutor with an opportunity to portray him as a man given to fabrications and inventions – with serious implications for his defence.

“It will not suffice for Legija just to say that the state was involved in illicit drug trading,” this judicial source said. “He must present evidence for that and someone else should also confirm his story.

“The prosecutor’s office already has evidence that Legija has not told the truth. The prosecutor has a paper with the signature of the former interior minister, Dusan Mihajlovic, saying all the drugs were destroyed.”

The same judicial source said the prosecution had prepared a long list of difficult questions for Legija. “They are preparing to give him a good shake. When they show Legija is lying, his whole defence strategy will collapse,” the source said.

Judicial experts predict if this part of Legija’s defence collapses, it will help the prosecution to establish that he has not been telling the truth throughout.

Dragan Karleusa, who led the police commission tasked with destroying the drugs in 2001, insisted to the weekly Europa magazine that the consignment had been incinerated as reported.

Karleusa said the police leadership at the time had been eager to show the local and international public that the new democratic authorities had nothing to do with the drugs trade. This, he said, was why the drugs they found were quickly destroyed only one day after their discovery.

Djindjic’s former allies have all strongly denied the accusation that they were involved in the drugs affair.

It seems that blunders, deliberate or accidental, committed by both the Milosevic government and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, government, have enabled Legija to make his claim.

By law, after its seizure on the Bulgarian border, the drugs should have been handed to the courts for safekeeping until the completion of the necessary legal proceedings.

After a court verdict was handed down on their fate, the heroin should then have destroyed in front of certain witnesses: a court commission and a criminal expert on narcotics.

Milosevic's officials did not adhere to any of these legal procedures and handed the drugs to the state security service for “safekeeping”. “This was not only illegal, but punishable by law,” IWPR’s judicial source said.

Milos Vasic, commentator for the Belgrade weekly Vreme, blamed the DOS authorities for their equally lax handling of the affair.

“If the heroin had been destroyed by the books in the presence of the court’s commission and criminal experts, and had those responsible for this [affair] been prosecuted, Legija would not have anything to talk about in court,” Vasic noted.

Karleusa said the fact that court officials were not present, as required, does not mean the drugs were not destroyed, however.

Legija’s surrender at the beginning of May and his first testimony on June 14 stirred huge interest in the Belgrade media.

Many observers voiced expectations that he would shed new light on the circumstances of Djindjic’s murder – the killing has led to a bitter row between the DS and its main rival, the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, over who planned the assassination.

Jovan Ciric, of the Belgrade Institute for Comparative Law, said it was unclear at this point whether Lukovic had the vital evidence to corroborate his story.

“He is experienced in these affairs. No one should rule out the possibility that he indeed has some evidence for his claims, perhaps even a written document,” Ciric said. “The question is whether such a proof is credible and how convincing it could be for the court.”

Ciric said Legija’s story was not in itself necessarily implausible, “Such things happen and are not as rare as one might think. It is well known that the CIA and similar powerful organisations and secret services take advantage of illicit drugs trading to raise the money for shady funds.”

Legija’s allegations have received wide publicity in the Serbian public but no one knows for sure why he has resorted to them as part of his defence, as it has no direct connection to his indictment for Djindjic’s murder – which he denies.

Vasic said Legija had adopted a reckless strategy, which he seemed to believe would improve his own standing at the expense of the DS and those close to Djindjic.

Professor Dobrivoje Radovanovic, of the Institute for Sociological and Criminal Research, said the defendant was trying to portray Djindjic as someone heavily involved in illicit drug trading with Legija himself only a minor player.

Serbia’s politically divided public is now awaiting the Special Prosecution Office’s next move. “We will investigate each and every step – beginning with the transfer of heroin from the vaults to its incineration,” a source close to the Special Prosecution Office told IWPR.

IWPR tried repeatedly to contact Legija’s lawyers, but they were unavailable as we went to press.

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