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Serbia: Crime Crackdown Counts Successes, But Raises Concern

Serbia this week lifted its state of emergency imposed after the murder last month of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. Thousands of people were arrested in the police crackdown that followed Djindjic's killing. Authorities say they've dealt a serious blow to the alliance of organized criminals and hard-line nationalists they believe were behind the killing. But there are some concerns too -- namely that the crackdown has been used to target political opponents.

Prague, 25 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Serbian authorities are claiming a stunning success in their investigation into the killing last month of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Thousands of people have been questioned and nearly 4,000 detained in the 42-day state of emergency that was imposed after the assassination and lifted this week.

Authorities say they caught the man who pulled the trigger -- along with some dozen accomplices from the ranks of the criminal underworld and a now-disbanded elite police unit.

And they claim to have solved other crimes too, like the killing of Ivan Stambolic, a former Serbian president, and an attempt to kill opposition leader Vuk Draskovic.

Serbia's acting president, Natasa Micic said that "a decisive blow" has been struck against organized crime. "Today we can say that we have inflicted a decisive blow against organized crime," she said. "[Former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's criminal apparatus is dismantled and the spiral of crime that tore apart this country for more than a decade is broken. The state has been defended."

But Djindjic's successor, Zoran Zivkovic, said the battle is not yet over. "During these 40 days we have completely revealed the circumstances in which the prime minister was assassinated. And a few dozen other unresolved murders from the last 10 years have been cleared up. We completely disrupted the channel of drug trafficking and solved a lot of other cases. It's a big step forward in the fight against organized crime. But this is just the first step, the battle is not over and it will continue," Zivkovic said.

The authorities believe Djindjic was killed by an alliance of criminals and nationalist hard-liners with a common interest in keeping Serbia from straying too far down a pro-Western, reformist path.

Police, prosecutors, judges, and army officials have all been swept up in the net, as well as hundreds of members of the criminal underworld, in particular a gang known as the "Zemun clan." One of the last suspects still at large is Zemun's alleged leader, Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, who until last year was the commander of the disbanded paramilitary "Red Berets."

But the sweep has raised some concerns. Suspects could be held for up to 30 days without access to a lawyer, and new legislation means they can be held for up to 60 days without a decision by a judge. That's drawn criticism from some human rights activists, including Human Rights Watch.

Others, notably Milosevic's immediate successor as Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, have complained the investigation turned into something of a political witchhunt. Kostunica said the search for suspects had turned into a crackdown "targeting political opponents." Two of his former aides were among those detained.

Dejan Mihajlov heads Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia in parliament. He said the sweep has been selective -- police targeted the Zemun gang, but cast a blind eye to the rival "Surcin" gang, as well as dodgy businessmen who are cozy with the current government.

"The real purpose of these [new tougher] to preserve power and to deepen fear among ordinary people," Mihajlov said. "It's also a bit of political marketing, to prove that the government is genuinely in favor of cracking down on organized crime. But my question is why are they selective? Why are some people still beyond the reach of the law, before during and after the state of emergency?"

Sonja Biserko heads the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. She said claims of a political vendetta are overdone and are designed to deflect attention away from the challenges ahead. "My concern is how far they will go in this purging and whether they will go vertically, not only horizontally, meaning also upper echelons of army, police and so on and not only so-called street mafia. I think [Kostunica and others] are raising this noise because they want to prevent this purge from going wider and really into the higher echelons of mafia and war criminals," she said.

Since Djindjic's assassination, Belgrade has pledged to improve cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal in chasing down suspects such as General Ratko Mladic.

Vojin Dimitrijevic heads the Belgrade Center for Human Rights. He also had some reservations about the extended detention period. But he said the public has backed the crackdown as justified -- and the sweep may have helped war criminals drop in some people's estimation.

"The nationalist public opinion which tended to treat these people [war criminals] as national heroes or as those who committed crimes fighting for a valid national cause -- these included Milosevic and especially Mladic -- they are now realizing that this contamination of the patriotic with the criminal was so deep that they are losing [their] aura [as] national heroes," Dimitrijevic said.

It's striking that the authorities achieved more in under two months than in the previous two years. Dimitrijevic said Djindjic's assassination provided the jolt needed for the government to take serious action against organized crime and influential remnants of the old regime.

"These things were so pervasive that there was a need to do it and unfortunately strong support for that came dramatically only after Djindjic was killed. In a way he did by his death more than he could do alive," he said.

Dimitrijevic gave one example of how previous purges were half-hearted -- a commission set up to cooperate with The Hague tribunal was stuffed with old-guard generals who mostly obstructed its work.

(Dragan Stavljanin of RFE/RL's South Slavic And Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)