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12 Convicted in Connection with Assassination of Serbian Prime Minister


A Serbian court has found two former members of a Serbian paramilitary police unit and 10 co-conspirators guilty of the assassination of reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic four years ago. Stefan Bos reports for VOA from Budapest.

Former special police commander Milorad "Legija" Ulemek and his deputy Zvezdan Jovanovic were convicted of conspiring with fellow paramilitary and underworld figures to shoot Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. Both men received the maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

Judge Nata Mesarevic told the Belgrade special court, which has been trying the case, that the men planned to first kill Mr. Djindjic then other state officials, to create a climate of fear and help hardliners regain power.

Serbia is still recovering from the loss of Mr. Djindjic. A bullet from Jovanovic's rifle killed the prime minister as he got out of his car in Belgrade. His death threw the country into a state of emergency, crippling the pro-Western reform program that he initiated.

Srdja Popovic, a lawyer representing the Djindjic family, said it was not possible at the time to reveal the motive behind the crime, because of international pressure to distance Vojislav Kostunica from the case. Mr. Kostunica is the conservative who succeeded Mr. Djindjic.

"The moment to solve the political background of the assassination was during the state of emergency," he said.

It was clear to the public that at one moment prime minister Kostunica had to answer some questions, and then, according to the Politika daily news and statements of one of the members of Kostunica's party, foreign governments pressured the government at the time, not to involve Kostunica in the case and to put on trial the actual killers only. And he adds, "In my opinion, that happened because the EU was afraid that it could cause instability in the country."

Ten accomplices were given prison sentences, ranging between eight and 35 years. Five of the 12 have fled and were judged in absentia. Some also served as paramilitaries in the Bosnian, Croatian and Kosovan conflicts. All defendants present in court denied the charges

Mr. Djindjic, Serbia's first democratically elected prime minister since World War II, spearheaded President Slobadan Milosevic's removal from power in 2000. He later handed Milosevic over to the U.N. tribunal to answer for his role in the wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Milosevic died of a heart attack in prison last year.

Although the trial was seen as a step towards more stability for Serbia, supporters of Mr. Djindjic described the sentences as too light.