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Serbia & Montenegro: Djindjic Murder Trial Begins In Belgrade Amid Controversy

The trial of suspects accused of being behind the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic opened today in a special court in Belgrade. More than 40 people have been charged in connection with the murder, but critics say discrepancies in the months-long official investigation make it unlikely the truth will emerge.

Prague, 22 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A top marksman from a special police unit is charged with firing the fatal shot that killed Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic as he stepped out of his car in front of government headquarters in Belgrade on 12 March.

Zvezdan Jovanovic later told police he lay in wait for three days in a vacant office across the street before shooting Djindjic. He said there had been four failed attempts to kill Djindjic over the previous month.

The investigation into the killing charged that it was the former commander of the Red Berets special operations unit who planned and organized the attack, with help from his allies in Belgrade's criminal underworld. Milorad Lukovic, also known as Legija, is on the run from authorities, as are seven other suspects of the 15 who have been charged with direct involvement in the killing.

Two of the bosses of the Zemun criminal gang were shot dead during a police raid to arrest them.

Critics, however, say there are important discrepancies in the official investigation. And among those critics is Djindjic's top bodyguard.

Milan Veruovic, who was wounded during the attack, insists that two gunmen -- not one -- fired at Djindjic from different directions. He also claims he was not interviewed by police and that no reconstruction of the crime was ever conducted.

Officials dismiss his assertions as an emotional reaction.

Dobrivoje Radovanovic is the director of the Institute for Criminology in Belgrade. He tells RFE/RL that if the court can prove there was a second marksman, that would dramatically alter the course of the trial:

"If it is really proven that there was a third bullet or a second killer, a second person who fired a shot, that would radically change the course of the court trial, in the sense there will be doubts about whether evidence had been fixed or it was a simple error of the investigation," Radovanovic said.

The investigation also did not answer the question of who may have ordered the assassination.

Djindjic's murder threw his government into an intense crisis. A six-week state of emergency was imposed, during which police rounded up thousands of suspects in a swift and sometimes brutal crackdown.

Officials initially said the assassination was meant to topple Djindjic's pro-Western government and blamed it on supporters of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Days after the murder, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic said, "This criminal act is clearly an attempt by those who, in previous years, tried to stop the development of Serbia and its democratization, to change the course of history and turn Serbia into an empire of criminals."

Djindjic was instrumental in handing Milosevic over to the UN tribunal in The Hague, where the former strongman is currently standing trial for war crimes and genocide. During the state of emergency, authorities detained several former aides to Milosevic, as well as aides to former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.

When the investigation was completed, other possible motives for the murder emerged. Officials said the Red Berets may have feared that Djindjic -- who initially tolerated and reportedly even used members of the special unit in arresting Milosevic in 2001 -- was preparing to act against them and their criminal allies.

Criminologist Radovanovic says unmasking those who gave the order to kill could potentially throw Serbian politics into turmoil. "This trial is, no doubt, immensely significant because it will show whether [the murder] was politically or criminally motivated, or something else that maybe we cannot even guess. Besides that, it is significant because if evidence was found that it was a political murder, or if evidence is found that it was carried out by organized crime, maybe after this trial -- if it proceeds in a totally correct and professional way -- maybe we'll have a different situation, or different policies in Serbia," Radovanovic said.

A further twist in the case has only added fuel to the fires of speculation. The alleged head of a powerful criminal gang has been given the status of protected witness -- a legal category previously unknown in Serbia. Ljubisa Buha is accused of involvement in several other murders and reportedly also has close connections with high-placed government officials.

Radovanovic finds it difficult to believe in a possible cover-up. But, he adds, turning the trial into a farce or the settling of political counts would benefit many parties, most of all organized crime:

"That could benefit many parties, including political parties which were in power and which in the meantime split ahead of the upcoming [parliamentary] election. [It could also benefit] the opposition parties, the parties which in some way contributed -- although the term is legally not correct - to the situation preceding the murder. But it would -- most of all -- benefit organized crime," Radovanovic said.

There is something else criminologist Radovanovic finds fault with: "The fact that [more than 40 people] are charged over one murder is not a sign of good work on the part of the justice system and police -- especially as those who ordered or organized the crime are not among those charged. When you have [more than 40] perpetrators and collaborators, but you do not have those who ordered the crime, then something is not in order."

About half of the 44 suspects charged in the Djindjic assassination are still at large. The trial is expected to last many months.

(RFE/RL's South Slavic Service contributed to this report.)