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Serbia Takes On Crime Bosses

Government faces uphill struggle against mafia, despite introduction of new crime busting measures.
By Davor Lukac

The Serbian government has stepped up its battle against organised crime by modifying laws to give greater protection to informants and witnesses.


Changes to the legislation passed on December 27 were followed only days later by the forced retirement of Radovan Knezevic, head of the department for fighting organised crime, UBPOK, after he was lambasted for failing to curb mafia activities.


Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic, whose come under similar criticism, is also likely to be replaced.


Analysts have described the moves as significant developments in the battle against organised crime, but warn that it will be a long and painful one.


The Serbian police had undergone some limited reforms following pressure from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which resulted in a clearout of many corrupt officers. More than 220 faced criminal charges in 2002 - 42 of whom were convicted and nearly 70 dismissed from the service.


But the lack of an effective witness protection programme has frustrated efforts to arrest and prosecute gangsters.


Many suspected criminals have walked free after apparently intimidating witnesses and even judges. One alleged Belgrade crime boss has been charged more than 170 times without ever being convicted.


But the amended law - which allows for the protection of witnesses and so-called undercover investigators - has not been accompanied by protection for prosecutors, prompting some policemen to voice fears that judges and lawyers may still be at risk of intimidation.


In any case, analysts believe that the country's poorly trained and equipped force has little chance of success as long as many politicians and policemen remain linked with underworld figures.


For years, the law enforcement bodies maintained strong ties with the mafia to the point where the two sometimes became indistinguishable. As a result, not one gangster-related murder was solved during the Milosevic era.


As the opposition relied heavily on the police and some crime bosses in order to overthrow Milosevic, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic has since found it almost impossible to crack down on the underworld and their collaborators in the various law enforcement agencies.


When he took office, Mihajlovic pledged to investigate the murder of journalist Slavko Curuvija and the kidnapping of former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic - thought to have been the work of the secret police - but his inquiries have come to naught.


The perpetrators of at least 15 mafia killings over the past year remain at large, and not one of the 52 organised crime gangs, listed in a so-called "white book" compiled by the police last summer, has been broken up or had their activities curtailed.


Criticising Mihajlovic on December 24, the governor the Yugoslav national bank Mladjan Dinkic said he had "given up" on the police and some other state institutions, asserting that they had ignored a large number of criminal charges the bank had filed against companies allegedly involved in money laundering.


The governor provided the authorities with a lengthy list of such firms - including some close to the government. In response, the interior ministry has filed charges against Dinkic for "failing to report a crime".


Meanwhile, the gangs themselves continue to wreak havoc. Belgrade was rocked by a series of explosions on the night of December 20, when masked men broke into an office run by an alleged organised crime boss and planted around 20 explosive devices. The bombers were in no hurry, freeing security guards and even warning nearby residents to prepare for the blasts.


The ease with which the criminals carried out the attack and the interior ministry's rather lame response to the incident is believed to have led to Knezevic's early retirement.


When UBPOK was set up a year ago to prevent information on planned operations being leaked to corrupt policemen, its members rather grandly billed themselves as "The Incorruptibles", after the famous American gangbusters known as The Untouchables.


But officials have since admitted that the unit lacked sufficiently well trained personnel and technical equipment to carry out its task efficiently, and alleged that Milosevic-era legislation was making the job nearly impossible.


Davor Lukac is a journalist with the Tanjug news agency in Belgrade.


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