Elite policeman on trial for killing Serb PM

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A former élite police officer accused of shooting Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian Prime Minister, was led handcuffed into court yesterday as the trial of 21 people accused of the assassination opened in Belgrade.

Zvezdan Jovanovic, who was dressed in a grey suit and a black T-shirt, was the first of the defendants to enter a large bullet-proof glass booth and sat calmly in the first row. A policeman sat between each suspect.

The former deputy commander of the feared Red Berets paramilitary unit did not even blink when the cameramen were allowed into the courtroom to take pictures of the suspects and flashes went off for five minutes in front of his expressionless face.

Just a few feet above him, Mr Djindjic's mother sat in the public gallery. Dressed in black, her face grew pale and her hands shook as the indictment was read at the opening of the biggest trial in Serbian history held amid maximum security in a specially renovated courtroom in Belgrade.

A total of 36 suspected gangsters and members of an élite police unit face charges of forming a "criminal enterprise" aimed at assassinating the Prime Minister and toppling the pro-Western government to bring back to power people close to Slobodan Milosevic. They are also accused of more than 200 major criminal acts, including drug smuggling, murders, blackmail and the assassination on 12 March of Mr Djindjic. They face up to 40 years in jail each.

The charismatic Djindjic, Serbia's first democratic leader in 50 years, was killed by a single bullet through his heart in front of the government's building in Belgrade. He masterminded the ousting of Mr Milosevic and infuriated nationalists with the extradition of the former Yugoslav President to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague in 2001.

The trial is considered a major test of the judiciary, and of Serbia's transition to democracy. The 15 other suspects are still at large and will be tried in absentia, including the alleged mastermind of the assassination, Milorad Lukovic or Legija, who was in charge of the Red Berets during Milosevic's war campaigns in the Balkans.

The judge adjourned the case until today to consider a number of complaints from defence lawyers, including that they had not been given access to all documentsand that the indictment had been changed at the last minute.

The trial begins days before Sunday's parliamentary elections will pit Djindjic allies against resurgent nationalists sympathetic to Milosevic.