Gangsters to testify in Djindjic murder trial

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Key underworld witnesses will take the stand today in the trial of the suspected assassins of the reformist Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Key underworld witnesses will take the stand today in the trial of the suspected assassins of the reformist Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

The high-profile case resumes before the Special Court in Belgrade today. In its second phase, gang bosses and a bodyguard wounded in the killing will give evidence.

Mr Djindjic, Serbia's first democratic prime minister, was killed by a sniper's bullet outside a government building on 12 March 2003.

Five of the accused will appear before judges. Eight suspects are still at large, including Milorad Lukovic "Legija", the former commander of the Special Operations Unit (JSO), or the"Red Berets" of Serbian police, during the Milosevic era. The unit was notorious for its war crimes committed against non-Serbs in wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Mr Djindjic was instrumental in the ousting of Mr Milosevic in 2000 and his extradition to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. According to the indictment, Mr Lukovic and his accomplices were part of an organised crime ring called the Zemun Clan whichplanned and carried out the assassination of Mr Djindjic. Mr Lukovic fled the country on the night of the killing.

Two witnesses who belong to the organised crime groups will give evidence behind closed doors, having struck a deal with the prosecution for a lesser penalty. Milan Veruovic, Mr Djindjic's bodyguard who survived the shooting, will also give evidence. He has claimed to have heard shots from two directions, indicating that two sharpshooters might have been involved. His testimony is likely to contradict both the investigation and the indictment which alleges the shots came from a single direction.

Analysts and lawyers say that what was described as the trial of the century in Serbia is turning into a travesty of justice, mostly due to political reasons.

The new government of Vojislav Kostunica is trying to minimise the significance of the case. The Justice Minister, Zoran Stojkovic, recently said that the Special Court where the case is being heard should be abolished, while the Interior Minister, Dragan Jocic, said a new investigation into the assassination should take place. Mr Jocic also said the arrest of Mr Lukovic was not among his priorities.

Rajko Danilovic, the lawyer for the Djindjic family, said: "The new government is trying to annihilate the results of the battle against the organised crime... All the details of the assassination were cleared up.

"They [the new regime] are degrading the whole trial to a point which would mean 'a man was killed'. They are trying to recreate the atmosphere where 'Legija' again become the idol of Serbian youth".

The political situation in Serbia has changed dramatically since Mr Djindjic's death. The country is witnessing the revival of Milosevic-era values. Mr Kostunica's government was confirmed last month with the help of the Socialist Party of Mr Milosevic. In return, concessions to Socialists include a law on financial help to war crimes indictees, which will cost taxpayers at least €25,000 (£16,000) a month.