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Serbia: Trial of Djindjic Assassins Under Scrutiny

Many questions remain about who ordered the killing as well as how the shots were fired.
By Dragana Nikolic-Solomon

Judges, lawyers and analysts have raised serious reservations about the trial of Zoran Djindjic’s alleged assassins.


They argue that the investigation has been so politicised and is so riddled with discrepancies, procedural errors and human rights abuses that the truth over the murder is unlikely to emerge.


The trial of 44 suspects, mostly indicted for direct involvement in the March 12 assassination of the premier, is due to start at the Special Court in Belgrade on December 22.


Preparations for the case are underway in the state-of-the-art trial chamber, set in a former military court building. It is equipped with high-tech gear, halogen lights, plasma TV screens and a TV studio, which will record the whole proceedings.


Djindjic was gunned down by sniper fire in front of an entrance to the headquarters of the Serbian government. The same day a state of emergency was imposed that lasted six weeks.


The ensuing police operation, codenamed Saber, extended its brief from finding Djindjic’s killers to combating organised crime in general. The police detained almost 11,000 people, more than one-quarter of whom spent time in jail.


Shortly after the murder, the authorities announced they had uncovered “a very clear political plan” behind the killing and accused a number of opposition parties of involvement.


They included the Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, the Yugoslav Left, JUL, and the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, and other parties “who did not like the… influence of the [ruling] Democratic Opposition of Serbia DOS[coalition]”, which Djindjic had controlled.


They also accused Milosevic and his wife Mirjana, the “Hague Brotherhood” - which allegedly comprised members of the army and police opposed to the war crimes court - and the so-called Vukovar Trio of men who had been indicted by the tribunal for war crimes in Croatia. Lastly, they accused the Zemun mafia, as the Belgrade underworld is often styled, and certain businessmen, of responsibility.


The arrested men included Jovica Stanisic, Milosevic’s secret police chief, Franko Simatovic, known as Frenki, a former commander of the government's shadowy Special Operations Unit, JSO, and Stanisic’s aide, Borislav Mikelic, an ex-prime minister of Republika Srpska Krajina, the onetime Serb statelet in Croatia.


Among the other arrests were the military intelligence chief, General Aco Tomic, Rade Bulatovic once military cabinet chief to former Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, the SPS deputy leader Milorad Vucelic and other JUL and SPS officials.


The net of suspicions reached as far as the SRS leader, Vojislav Seselj, who was interrogated in the Hague tribunal’s detention unit by the special prosecutor and an investigating judge.


But after the investigation was completed the claims did not amount to anything tangible. Stanisic and Simatovic were sent to the Hague as indictees, but the Serbian authorities assured their lawyers that their clients had no part in the criminal proceedings over the murder of the former prime minister.


Most of the others were also set free with no official explanation of why they had been detained. Vucelic and Bulatovic were the first to be released of those held on conspiracy charges. No charges were brought against Seselj.


Sources close to the judiciary suggested most of the official statements made during the state of emergency had been intended to manipulate the public. One claimed that people were arrested without any selection under the principle of "stay in jail and maybe we’ll find something against you”.


When the indictment was released in August it raised several questions – from the fact that it dealt solely with possible perpetrators and technical details rather than with the people who gave the orders, to the fact that the circumstances of the assassination itself were disputed.


The indictment stated that all the strings in the conspiracy were planned and pulled by Milorad “Legija” Lukovic, the former commander of the Red Berets unit and a known member of the Zemun criminal fraternity.


But as Legija is on the run and the Zemun bosses, Dusan “Siptar” Spasojevic and Mile “Kum” Lukovic , were killed in the state of emergency, many now see serious obstacles lying in the path of any attempt to piece together the sequence of events.


The judicial source told IWPR, “The question is whether the indictment was worded properly. It states the orders for the murder came from Legija, Siptar and Kum, but does not go into the fundamental issues and answer questions about whether other, more powerful forces were behind it.


“Only Legija, Siptar and Kum can say whether the plan and orders to eliminate Djindjic came from elsewhere. The other indicted persons know nothing as they were only ordinary soldiers, blindly following orders."


Another IWPR source, once close to Djindjic and the Red Berets, agreed, "Legija and company could have killed Djindjic but they couldn’t have thought up the entire plan."


One analyst suggested that the authorities did not dare launch a wider investigation in case it exposed the role played by the secret police and Red Berets, which the authorities have not reformed.


There has been no explanation about why security measures for the prime minister were not stepped up following a previous attempt to kill him; why the surveillance cameras covering the front of the government building were turned off and dismantled; and why - according to Djindjic's bodyguard Milan Veruovic - no one replied to his customary announcement concerning the premier’s arrival before he entered the government building.


Veruovic disputed the official version of the assassination in October. As a witness to the murder, who was wounded in the shooting, he told B92 that three shots were fired at him and the prime minister, not two, as the prosecutors had said.


Veruovic said that at the moment the shots were fired Djindjic was facing the doors of the government building, not the car, as the indictment claimed.


He disputed the prosecutor's claim that the bullet that hit the premier in the right side of his body came from the street, from where his alleged assassin, Zvezdan Jovanovic, had fired. He said the third bullet came from another direction, raising questions about whether the indictment overlooked the existence of a second sniper.


Late in October, Veruovic confirmed the claims he made earlier to B92. But when IWPR tried to contact Veruovic again recently, he said he had been officially forbidden from giving more interviews before the trial.


Veruovic’s theory was hardened up early in December, when the weekly magazine NIN published official photographs taken by police technicians at the crime scene. These showed that besides the bullet that hit the façade of the building, two others ended up inside it.


Besides these discrepancies, defense lawyers have complained that legal proceedings were not respected in the investigation, that their clients’ rights were violated and that politicians made statements to the media, commenting on the indictment, in defiance of the law.


At least three defense lawyers told IWPR they had not received documents accompanying the indictment in time to prepare a defense. Gradimir Nalic, Tomic's defense lawyer, told IWPR they did not obtain access to all the indictment documents, especially ballistic and forensic reports.


Biljana Kajganic, lawyer for Dejan “Bagzi” Milenkovic, whose name is on the indictment, said she was sent the accompanying documents only on December 11 after filing requests with the court since August, when the indictment was raised. She has to study 467 pages in 10 days to prepare her case. Kajganic said the court had ignored the rights of the defense and had put them in an inferior position to that of the prosecution.


Goran Petronijevic, lawyer for Aleksandar Pejakovic whose name is on the indictment, also confirmed to IWPR that he received accompanying documents only recently. “In order to prepare proper defense, lawyer would require three to six months to study these documents,” he told IWPR, saying this was a drastic example of abusing the right to a defense.


A defense lawyer who insisted on anonymity told IWPR there was no chance of solving the murder thanks to the behavior of both the government and of the court "under its patronage”.


Article 6 of the Law on Courts forbids the use of any public position to affect the course and outcome of court proceedings. The Serbian premier Zoran Zivkovic duly told the media last week that everything "had been established in connection to the murder of the prime minister and the government will do everything to make sure that the picture is not distorted”.


But high-ranking officials have commented widely on the indictment. “Officials have commented on witness statements concerning whether there were two or three shots. The question is who is running the investigation, the government or the court?” Kajganic told IWPR.


She said the government was trying to persuade the public to accept its own version of the events concerning Djindjic’s murder, which had placed additional pressure on the court.


Although the information gathered in the investigation is an official secret and it is a crime to publish it, statements made by many of the indicted have appeared in the press. Defense lawyers say the prosecution has done nothing to establish how this information was leaked or to maintain the secrecy of the trial.


These lawyers believe publishing statements by indicted persons poses a risk to their families, while the statements deserve to be questioned owing to the alleged use of torture by police to obtain them. The emergency measures gave the police wide powers and allowed the detention of suspects for months without any right to see a lawyer.


IWPR and Amnesty International reported a widespread use of torture and the beating of suspects during this period. (See IWPR Investigative report: Detainees Allege Torture)


Serbian public prosecutor Djordje Ostojic told last week’s issue of the magazine Vreme that he was convinced the trial would succeed. It would “resolve a lot of speculation, before the court chamber and the public,” he said. Others are less sure.


Dragana Nikolic-Solomon is IWPR’s Serbia and Montenegro project director.


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