The diva, her warlord and a football fraud trial

The wife of the late war criminal Arkan is accused of stealing €4.5m in a case dividing Serbia

Svetlana Raznatovic, one of Serbia's most popular folk singers and former wife of the Serbian warlord Arkan, is to face trial for allegedly stealing millions of euros from transfers of football players during her time as the head of the Belgrade club Obilic.

The indictment revealed by Serbian prosecutors yesterday accuses Ms Raznatovic, who is better known as Ceca, of embezzling as much as €4.5m from the sale of 10 players between August 2000 and May 2003. If found guilty she faces up to 12 years in prison.

Ceca inherited the club from her husband, Arkan, whose real name was Zeljko Raznatovic, and who was gunned down in January 2000. Many suspect that opponents were so scared of the club's owner they deliberately lost games against his team.

Ceca's sister Lidija and former Obilic officials Dragisa Binic and Jovan Dimitrijevic have also been charged. Ceca is also accused of illegally possessing firearms, including 11 revolvers and pistols found at her home in Belgrade during a police raid in 2003.

At the time of Arkan's death at the hands of an off-duty policeman Ceca was 27, and was left to bring up their two small children. The tear-jerking tale of how she ran to the hotel where her husband had been shot, only to have him die in her arms, became the favourite of tabloid press for months after Arkan's death.

Ceca was a child star, singing nationalistic love songs for rural masses from the age of 14. But it was her marriage to Arkan in 1995 that launched her to unprecedented fame, helped no end by his reputation for merciless aggression and his forceful personality, which many believe helped to open doors in the television and music industries.

Their wedding was broadcast live on several television channels; the event proved to be a trashy mixture of old Serbian tradition and the newly popular fashion of gangsters turned wealthy businessmen in sanctions-hit Serbia.

After their marriage, Ceca and Arkan became icons. While Ceca's looks were copied by younger Serbian girls, the propaganda machine of Slobodan Milosevic's government helped to turn her husband into an idol for young men who were keen for a war hero at the start of the Yugoslav conflict.

The aura remained until his death in 2000, nine months before Milosevic fell from power. It remains almost intact for many Serbs today, among those who still live in disbelief that Serbian "heroes" committed atrocities in Croatia or Bosnia.

"My husband was never a gangster or a war criminal, he was the love of my life and I lived like a princess with him," Ceca usually says when asked about her husband's past.

Her popularity survives today across the former Yugoslavia where her stardom is compared to that of Madonna, despite the fact that she never sings in either Croatian or Bosnian. Her now infrequent concerts in Belgrade typically attract 100,000 fans and all are dedicated to her late husband.

Arkan, however, was a well-known common thief who sometimes worked as an executioner for Yugoslav secret services in the 1980s. He served sentences for a series of thefts in Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium, and became famous for his spectacular escapes from foreign prisons.

When the former Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991, Arkan became the leader of the "Tigers", a paramilitary formation that took to the war to Croatia and Bosnia. Gathering other former criminals, as well as young people on the verge of society, Arkan became one of the most prominent so-called Serbian "patriots".

If sentenced to a prison term, Ceca will be familiar with the surroundings. She was arrested and spent four months in jail in 2003, after the cache of illegal guns quoted in the indictment was found at her home. At the time, she said the weapons were her husband's, stashed in a room she "never went into".

Her home was initially searched because Ceca was suspected of helping the gang who assassinated the first post-Milosevic, pro-European prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, in 2003. One her associates, Milorad Lukovic, was convicting of the killing in 2007, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

News of the indictment caused an avalanche of reactions in Serbia. Critics say that the eight-year-long investigation was stalled due to Ceca's popularity, but the prosecution's spokesman, Tomo Zoric, said that it was long due to documentation that came from France, Greece, Russia and Turkey. Sources say the state has also collected material from Belgium, Italy, Latvia and Switzerland, where football players were sold, and where private accounts with millions were held in Ceca's or in her sister's name.

Hundreds of blogs yesterday came out in favour of Ceca, while others offered approval for the prosecution's move. Some said such a "Serbian legend" should not be prosecuted; others said it was finally "justice knocking at a thief's door".

Snezana Malovic, Serbia's Justice Minister, told national television that the prosecution was just doing its job in this case, with the aim to show "that no one can be officially pardoned, not even the so-called 'national icons'".

"In order to succeed against organised crime and corruption, it is necessary to change the awareness of citizens and establish the system of values that did not exist in the [wartorn] 1990s," Ms Malovic said.

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