Serbian police 'tortured suspects' after PM was killed says Amnesty

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Amnesty International is calling for an investigation into claims that Serbian police tortured suspects held after the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the pro-reform prime minister.

"We believe that the use of torture and ill-treatment during 'Operation Sabre' was widespread,'' the human rights organisation said yesterday. Operation Sabre was the code-name for the police operation that led to the detention of 10,000 people after the killing. Mr Djindjic was shot through the heart by a sniper outside the main government building in Belgrade on 12 March.

"Allegations of torture by security forces of detainees include asphyxiation by taping bags over the head, beatings, electric shocks to the head and body, and mock executions,'' the Amnesty report said.

"These are extremely serious allegations. And we are asking the Serbian authorities to allow us and other human rights groups unfettered access to interview any of the detainees privately so that we may ascertain the true scale of the problem.'' Torture was used "particularly against those perceived as being relatively low-level criminals, out of the public eye, and unlikely to have their allegations widely publicised''.

The report quotes dozens of allegations of torture by detainees, their families or their lawyers. It says many victims were too intimidated to talk openly, fearing they might be arrested again or be subject to other forms of pressure.

An Amnesty delegate had visited Serbia in July and gathered information that confirmed torture and ill-treatment had taken place.

Rasim Ljajic, the minister for human and minority rights, has denied the allegations, saying detainees had not been ill-treated in prison. But he admitted having no knowledge of circumstances surrounding their arrest and detention.

A state of emergency proclaimed on 12 March was used to round up thousands of suspects in Serbia. About 4,500 were kept in custody but released when the state of emergency was lifted two months later.

The Serbian authorities justified Operation Sabre as a crackdown on organised crime and against people believed to be involved in the assassination. Police claimed to have cleansed the country of organised crime and drug dealers. Their action had broad public support because Serbs were fed up with the criminals who flourished in the era of the former leader Slobodan Milosevic.

An organised crime group, the Zemun clan, was blamed for the assassination of Mr Djindjic. It was headed by Milorad Lukovic "Legija", former commander of the Special Police Units (JSO), which was notorious for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

Investigators claimed that the clan, with hard-line Serbian nationalists, wanted to replace Mr Djindjic's government with forces loyal to Mr Milosevic. The latter is on trial before the international tribunal at The Hague for genocide and war crimes.

Last month, 44 people were charged for their role in the assassination. The trials are due to start in October. Mr Lukovic, who is the main suspect, is still at large.

The indictment against the man who killed Mr Djindjic, the former JSO commander Zvezdan Jovanovic, claims that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy between Mr Lukovic and other members of the Zemun clan. Mr Jovanovic's lawyer claims that his client suffered "psychological torture'' while he was in custody.