Serbia Opens Trial of Assassins

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro -- The trial of the suspected assassins of Serbia's prime minister opened Monday, with the focus on an alleged plot by gangsters and police to bring allies of Slobodan Milosevic back to power.

The proceedings -- considered a crucial test for Serbia's judiciary -- started amid maximum security in a high-tech courtroom in Belgrade surrounded by concrete walls and with bulletproof glass protecting defendants.

A total of 36 suspected gangsters and members of an elite police unit face charges of allegedly forming a "criminal enterprise" that attempted to topple late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's pro-Western government, according to the indictment.

However, only 21 of the suspects appeared in the court Monday, each flanked by two policemen. The remaining 15 will tried in absentia, including the alleged mastermind of the assassination, Milorad Lukovic or Legija, a former French Foreign Legion fighter who commanded the elite "Red Berets," during Milosevic's war campaigns in Bosnia and Croatia.

As presiding judge Marko Kljajevic read the indictment, most of the suspects -- some the charges against them.

Among the first expected to testify was Zvezdan Jovanovic, a Red Berets commander accused of firing the bullets that killed Djindjic and wounded his bodyguard.

Authorities have said the March 12 assassination was part of a plan by hard-line supporters of Milosevic to regain power three years after the former president was ousted by Djindjic's pro-Western coalition.

The sniper attack that killed the prime minister in front of government headquarters in Belgrade touched off the arrests of thousands of underworld figures and Milosevic-era paramilitaries believed linked to the murder.

Months of investigations and a countrywide crackdown on organized crime -- which also shed light on some previously unresolved murders and abductions -- led to criminal charges against the 36. Charges include conspiracy against the state, terrorism and first-degree murder, as well as some lesser crimes.

The defendants could face up to 40 years in jail each.

Djindjic's main foes included nationalists angered by his decision in 2001 to hand over Milosevic to the UN war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is now on trial for his alleged role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

War veterans -- alarmed that they, too, might be extradited to the tribunal -- allegedly plotted the assassination, together with the crime bosses who feared Djindjic would crack down on their lucrative drug trade, government officials said shortly after the assassination.

The shooting of the charismatic, foreign-educated prime minister -- Serbia's first democratic leader in 50 years -- shocked the nation. In a mass show of grief, tens of thousands attended his funeral in Belgrade.

The trial will also be a test for Serbia's judiciary, currently undergoing reforms after years of communism and Milosevic's autocratic rule.

"This is the trial of the century for Serbia," said Judge Maja Kovacevic, assigned to a special court set up for the proceedings.

Among the reforms, a witness protection program was recently introduced, which allowed a deal with three crime figures who have been cleared of charges in exchange for testifying against the suspects.

The trial, which may last for months, also comes amid trying times for the government, headed by Djindjic's successor, Zoran Zivkovic.

Infighting in the Cabinet and allegations of corruption have precipitated early parliamentary elections in Serbia, to be held next Sunday. Opinion polls indicate the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party might garner the most votes.