Trial in case of slain Serbian premier opens

BELGRADE – A key trial opens in Belgrade today for 36 suspects charged with assassinating Serbia’s prime minister in order to bring allies of Slobodan Milosevic back to power. Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s first democratic premier in more than 50 years, was fatally shot on March 12 in a sniper attack as he stepped out of his car in front of government headquarters in downtown Belgrade. A special prosecutor has blamed the attack on an underworld clan linked to hardliners in the police and paramilitary units loyal to Milosevic, the former Serbian and Yugoslav president who is now on trial at the UN war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands. A total of 44 people – including the prime suspect, Milorad Lukovic, the commander of a notorious paramilitary force under Milosevic – have been charged in connection with the assassination. Thirty-six will go on trial today, while the rest will be tried separately for conspiracy in the murder. «This is the trial of the century for Serbia,» said Judge Maja Kovacevic, assigned to a court especially set up for the trial. «Our judiciary has never handled a case of this magnitude,» Kovacevic told AP. «It will be a tremendous test for all.» Lukovic, whose paramilitary unit – the Red Berets – were known for their brutal ethnic-cleansing campaigns against non-Serbs during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 1990s, remains on the run along with 14 other suspects from the group. They will be tried in absentia. Zvezdan Jovanovic, an officer of the Red Berets who admitted pulling the trigger in the sniper attack that killed Djindjic and seriously injured his bodyguard, will be in the court today. Authorities say the assassination was part of a wider plot to unseat the democratic government and bring hardliners loyal to Milosevic back to power. Even though Lukovic – better known here as Legija for having served in the French Foreign Legion in the 1980s – remains at large, the trial is expected to get much public attention as well as scrutiny. «Without Lukovic, it will be tougher to determine who really inspired and financed the assassination,» said Serbia’s Interior Minister and police chief Dusan Mihajlovic. The trial is expected to last over a year.