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Djindjic Murder Trial Overshadows Serbian Elections

As the trial of 36 suspects in the murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic continued on Tuesday, Serbian opposition leaders accused the government of trying to sway public opinion in Sunday’s general election.

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Djindjic's alleged assassin, Zvezdan Jovanovic, left, in court.

Serbia’s supreme court on Tuesday turned down a request by defense lawyers to remove the three judges and the prosecutor in the case. In his opening statement, the prosecutor accused the suspects of killing Djindjic to topple his government.

More than nine months after Djindjic’s assassination outside his office in Belgrade on March 12, the alleged shooter, former elite police officer Zvezdan Jovanovic, and other defendants had begun to stand trial in a high-security courtroom on Monday.

Only 21 of the 36 suspects in Djindjic’s murder are in prison, however. They face up to 40 years each in jail if convicted. The rest will be tried in absentia. Among other crimes, the suspects are charged with murder, terrorism and organized crime.

A rushed trial?

Mladjan Micic in Belgrad vor Gericht

Defendant Mladjan Micic, center, sits with jail security officers in a bullet-proof box in the court room on Tuesday.

Opposition members have accused the government of rushing the case to trial before the election despite the fact that a majority of suspects is still on the run. Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic has rejected the claims, saying that the state could not wait forever to start the trial.

Whether Djindjic’s murder will ever be solved remains uncertain. While the prosecutor has identified Jovanovic as the only shooter, one of Djindjic’s bodyguards has said the bullets came from different directions.

Even Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic has expressed doubts that the details of the assassination will become clear without the arrest of the group’s alleged mastermind, Milorad “Legija” Lukovic, a former chief of the so-called Red Berets paramilitary unit.

Criminals had links to government

Lukovic is the alleged head of the so-called “Zemun clan,” a mafia-like organization that flourished during Serbia's international isolation through its links to the government of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Zoran Djindjic

Zoran Djindjic

Djindjic (photo), who helped to overthrow Milosevic in 2000 and outraged nationalists by sending him to the war crimes court in the Hague, apparently planned a crackdown on crime gangs like the Zemun clan before he was murdered.

Nationalists ahead in polls

The trial opened just days before Sunday’s general elections in Serbia. Three years ago, a coalition of parties, including Djindjic’s Democratic Party (DS), managed to win two-thirds of the votes.

However, that coalition broke apart a few weeks ago and former political allies now accuse each other of corruption, abuse of office and connections to organized crime. Djindjic’s course of Western-style economic and political reforms has been put on hold.

Recent polls suggest that as a result of this, nationalist parties could emerge as the leading vote-getters this time: Milosevic’s Socialist Party (SPS) and the right-extremist Serbian Radical Party (SRS). SRS leader Vojislav Seselj is also currently on trial for war crimes in the Hague.

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