In December 2014, the latest edition of Milan Veruović and Nikola Vrzić’s book “The Third Bullet – the Political Background to the Assassination of Zoran Đinđić" was launched at the Serbian Journalists' Association. In the twelve years since the assassination of the prime minister, the authors have been spokesmen for the assassins’ political mentors – the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). Vrzić is a journalist on whose career the process is taking a toll and Veruović possesses a criminal record; the work, therefore, of a petty thief and a journalist whose entire professional output is dedicated to promoting the needs and interests of people in politics and the secret service, it is not surprising that the book ran to four editions in just few months. This is simply a logical consequence of the fact that twelve years after the murder of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, the political instigators of a brutal crime remain unknown, in other words, society remains unembarrassed by the situation and there is no sign of any serious initiative to even raise the question.

The aim of the book, of course, is to cover up or make clarification of the political background to the assassination of Zoran Đinđić pointless, while removing the main providers of political support to Đinđić‘s murderers from the public eye. "The Third Bullet" is yet another contribution to the years of campaigning by the same powerful figures in politics, the military and security, who might find themselves among the accused if any investigation into the political background were to be opened. The theory of "the third bullet" was launched by Veruović and Vrzić at the outset of the trial in order to obstruct judicial proceedings.

Since 2003, when Milan Veruović first began publicly to support the theory of the third bullet, numerous items appeared in the media aimed at obscuring responsibility for the political background to the assassination, having the charges against the assassins dropped as well as the subsequent sentence that would send them to prison for several decades. Similar to the times when the media demonised Đinđić and his government, the authors of these items are usually journalists, publicists and columnists close to Koštunica and the DSS, along with former associates and/or supporters of Milošević’s regime and his security services.

After the assassination, they continued to orchestrate the media campaign aimed at Đinđić’s associates, misleading the public by spreading numerous conspiracy theories, which put pressure on the Prosecution Service and obstructed the work of the Special Court. Even today, over ten years later, they continue their campaign to overturn the truths proven in the assassination trial, while protecting those who politically inspired the murder by publishing conspiracy theories about who really killed Đinđić, alluding to the members of his cabinet and the like. Of all the theories, the third bullet is perhaps the most common.

The following represent some of these attempts and their authors: a book by Nikola Milošević "Zoran Đinđić in the Mafia Network"; the present book by Milan Veruović and Nikola Vrzić "The Third Bullet"; books by Milorad Ulemek Legija (so far he has written and published 16); documentary feature films and TV broadcasts: special Radio Television Serbia (RTS) productions to mark every anniversary of the assassination since 2003 (e.g. "The Last Day of Zoran Đinđić"; a movie by Filip Švarm and Radoslav Ćebić "The Assassination of Đinđić - the Media Background", etc.)

Milan Veruović
Milan Veruović

Veruović and Vrzić’s book is the most systematic product of this campaign. On over 400 pages, they enumerate the key elements of a propaganda that for over a decade permitted denial of the responsibility of those convicted of the murder and those who politically supported and instigated the plan to murder Đinđić. The book is divided into two parts: in the first, the authors discuss the third bullet, and in the second, the political background to the assassination.

Last year, historian Čedomir Antić in an article for Politika described it as a "conscientiously, minutely and precisely written study", saying that he had never seen "a better grounded or more serious analysis". This historian also noted that the book aroused few reactions - the only true observation in the entire article.

The following text will examine the key subjects analysed by Vrzić and Veruović in their book. However, the author’s intention is not to refute the obvious and covert false information which forms the basis of Veruović’s and Vrzić’s "arguments", but to give readers the opportunity to gain a more truthful insight into the events that preceded and followed the killing of Zoran Đinđić by presenting the facts about the assassination and its political background. For this reason, after a few words about Vrzić and Veruović and their book, we will show how events evolved in the context of the political background. We believe that if we bear in mind the series of events that began on 5 October 2000, it will be easy for anyone to see the arguments that discredit the propaganda allegations of Milan Veruović, Nikola Vrzić and other authors (basically the same ones), and the media items aimed at blocking disclosure of the political background to the assassination of Zoran Đinđić, something which has kept them busy for the past 12 years.

About the authors

Milan Veruović was a witness – a plaintiff in the trial of those indicted for the assassination. He worked as part of Đinđić’s escort since 1999, before the latter became prime minister. In view of Verović’s criminal record and the fact that Đinđić was surrounded by this kind of people, it is necessary to point to the circumstances that followed Đinđić’s political actions in the years preceding the changes of 5 October. Namely, the lives of Đinđić and other oppositional leaders were in danger during the regime of Slobodan Milošević. That was especially the case with Zoran Đinđić, whose political skills were the main threat to that regime. Through the state and parastate media, Milošević publicly labelled Đinđić in the war years as a traitor, spy and associate of state enemies, which aroused the aggression of those poisoned by hatred of everything that was not strictly nationalistic and anti-Western. Thus ordinary people, ready to launch verbal and physical attacks on individuals in the street became a threat to Đinđić. Under the circumstance, targets of state propaganda had to surround themselves by security, in other words with people capable of resisting this sort of attack and physical violence. Personnel of this type at the time was available only "on the other side of the law", among policemen who had lost their jobs, discarded by the regime because of some act of opposition. These were the so-called tough guys, usually criminals, who in a situation of war, poverty and the loss of basic human values saw their chance of avoiding prosecution for their crimes by making approaches to Milošević’s opposition. Their engagement was highly paid due to the nature of the business – guarding "state enemies" was a high risk job and provided political protection from legal responsibility, the pretext being that this was the reason they were being prosecuted.

This is why Đinđić was surrounded by persons like Milan Veruović. There was not much difference among the potential security candidates: they were all more or less the same, the only difference being who it was they were working for at a given time.

The third bullet
"The Third Bullet" book

During the trial of Đinđić’s assassins, Veruović gave a significantly different statement from a prior one made to the investigating judge on 14 July, on which he based his third bullet theory. Since Veruović was wounded when members of the Zemun Clan murdered Đinđić, he has used that fact for the past twelve years as an argument to validate his conspiracy theories, because his own body "testified to the existence of the third bullet".

On the day of the assassination, the prime minister’s security was made up of eight members travelling in three cars. Of eight of them, only Zoran Trajković did not later support the third bullet theory. Unlike the other seven, Trajković was not a member of Đinđić’s personal security, but an employee of Serbian government security. It is indicative that the seven, along with Veruović, all had criminal records for serious offences.

According to the media and reports by people from his surroundings that were made by the State Security Service (SDB) and handed to the prime minister in 2001, on 13 May 1993 criminal charges for drug distribution were brought against Veruović, and on 1 December of the same year, a final verdict, number 373/93, sentenced him to seven months in prison with two years probation for supplying drugs. Three years later, on 28 May 1996, criminal charges for illegal possession of weapons were raised.

Despite all this, Veruović had remarkable support from Đinđić’s self-proclaimed heirs in the years after the assassination, during which he deceived the public and talked about the third bullet. For reasons that at first glance seem unclear, Boris Tadić was present at Veruović’s testimony during the assassination trial, when he first put to the court the theory of the third bullet. The event was attended by young men in shirts displaying the initials of the Special Operations Unit - JSO - which the media eagerly reported. Namely, in giving testimony Veruović practically took on the role of interpreter of Zoran Đinđić’s political testament, answering questions asked by attorney Boža Prelević about Đinđić’s supposed opinion of a minister in his government, Marija Rašeta, and vice-premier Čedomir Jovanović, both of whom were political opponents of Boris Tadić. At the time, this suited Tadić politically because, according to many testimonies by both Đinđić’s and Tadić’s associates, he took the opposite side to Đinđić within the party.

Later, in 2005, Veruović said that Boris Tadić had been the only one who had advocated resolving "the third bullet" issue, or "entirely unravelling the matter". .

Despite the claims he had been making in public for years, in 2011 Veruović filed a lawsuit against the Republic of Serbia for 20 million dinars damages for wounds he had sustained in the assassination of Zoran Đinđić. Veruović pointed out in his demand that at the time of assassination, Zvezdan Jovanović was assistant to the JSO commander, in other words, a civil servant. With an eye to financial gain, in court Veruović referred to the fact that Đinđić was murdered by a civil servant, Zvezdan Jovanović, while in public he claimed that Đinđić was killed by a member of a foreign intelligence service.

Let us recall that in the middle of July 2007, this originator of the third bullet theory became an associate of the security policy in the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs during Vuk Jeremić’s term as foreign minister, while the prime minister of Serbia was Vojislav Koštunica. Before assuming his foreign affairs post, from 2005 to 2007 Veruović was engaged in security at the Serbian Mission to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and also worked as embassy security in Paris. In August 2012. Veruović left for New York with the then President of the Session of the UN General Assembly, Vuk Jeremić, where he worked as his personal driver and security.

Vojislav Koštunica and Nikola Vrzić
Vojislav Koštunica and Nikola Vrzić
Photo: Tanjug

Currently, Nikola Vrzić is the assistant editor of Milorad Vučelić’s magazine "Pečat" and a former journalist of the weekly NIN, a magazine that in the years after the assassination continuously provided him the opportunity to write articles validating his theory of the third bullet. Of course, Vrzić and NIN were not the only ones who publicly tried to devalue the assassination indictment, but here we only mention him in the context of his co-authorship of the present book.

It is interesting that the mutual respect and coincidence of interests between Nikola Vrzić, the DSS and Vojislav Koštunica - who was singled out as the political inspiration behind the prime minister’s assassination - dates from the second half of 2003, when NIN weekly became the main mouthpiece for the third bullet, a theory that worked in favour of those who had recently been accused of Đinđić’s murder. For months, in every issue Nikola Vrzić published articles whose goal was to prove that the real murderers were not in the dock. After the announcement of a possible court hearing of Vojislav Koštunica in order to determine his role in the political background to the assassination, a petition against the political persecution of DSS leaders was initiated and signed by Nikola Vrzić. Also, shortly before the parliamentary elections of 2012, Vrzić became actively involved in the DSS pre-election campaign. As a part of this, the party included the promotion of "WikiLeaks – Secrets of Belgrade Dispatches" by Nikola Vrzić, with Vojislav Koštunica speaking at many of the book’s promotions.

About the book

The authors of "The Third Bullet - The Political Background to the Assassination of Zoran Đinđić" claim that the political background to the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić was not the support of Vojislav Koštunica’s cabinet members to the murderers, but the involvement of the American and British secret services in the assassination. As motives for the killling, they mention with approval Đinđić’s alleged nationalistic policies, or, as they call it, concern for the interests of the Serbian people, reflected in his political about-turn – the keeping of Kosovo within Serbia, his intention to annex the Republic of Srpska to Serbia, his failure to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal. Paradoxically, as motives for Đinđić’s murder they note basic DSS policies, or causes of conflict between Prime Minister Đinđić and Koštunica. The authors join in the assertions of an alleged total turn-around by Đinđić before the assassination, along the lines of Aleksandar Tijanić’s statement that "before his death Đinđić became a Serb".

The authors of the book also claim that "those who were not satisfied with Đinđić’s policies" had many reasons to be content in the immediate aftermath of his murder because of the country’s political about-face. Instead of the DSS, which took power after Đinđić’s assassination and whose politics coincided with the political demands of the Red Beret and the Zemun Clan – who actually carried out the murder - the authors of the book refer to America and England. They even represent DSS politics as being found appropriate by those two countries, in other words, Đinđić was less suited to the Western powers than Koštunica. Following this logic, Koštunica would appear as a passionate advocate of European integration, collaboration with the Hague Tribunal, independence for Kosovo and the abolition of the Republic of Srpska as an entity, i.e., a unified Bosnia and Herzegovina. In consequence of these claims and in what they considered to be the national interest, Vrzić and Veruović declared Koštunica to be "a traitor", and Đinđić "a patriot".

However, these fantasies, while far from reality, are not the biggest problem in their version of "the truth" about the Đinđić assassination. A much greater paradox is their claim that members of the Red Berets and the American and British services found themselves on the same side. Therefore, they consider that the demands of war criminals and murderers, who were asking Đinđić not to hand them over to The Hague, in other words not to prosecute them for the crimes they committed during the regime of Slobodan Milošević, coincided with the plans of the Americans and the British, who, the authors claim, actually killed the prime minister.

Following this line of thinking, it would appear that identical plans by the Zemun Clan and foreign powers simultaneously came to fruition on the same day – 12 March 2003. As interpreted by Veruović and Vrzić, the American and British secret services chose the same moment for the assassination of the prime minister as the Đinđić’s murderers from among the JSO and the Zemun Clan - practically fighting as to who would kill him first. However, according to the authors, the Americans and British won because Đinđić was killed by a third bullet – theirs.

Zvezdan Jovanović
Zvezdan Jovanović
Photo: Tanjug

If we accept Veruović’s and Vrzić’s theory, the assassins who confessed to the murder of Đinđić were greatly mistaken. Even though by their own admission they only managed to carry out the assassination on the fifth attempt after a series of failures in previous months, according to the authors of "The Third Bullet" – they did not kill the prime minister on 12 March either. Zvezdan Jovanović aimed, fired, saw the prime minister fall, get up and hastily leave the crime scene, but did not know that similar simultaneous action was taken by a member of the American or British services. Zvezdan Jovanović was wrong: his bullet did not hit Đinđić - the conclusion of Veruović and Vrzić.

And that is not all. The authors of the book claim that the foreign services of Western countries then influenced the investigation and the trial, hiding the real truth that would reveal their responsibility. Those services, according to the logic of Veruović and Vrzić, set the members of Zemun Clan up as Đinđić’s murderers, who, to make it all more believable, were themselves convinced the whole time that they had actually done it. However, even though they prepped for it thoroughly and had several unsuccessful attempts before they eventually succeeded on 12 March – they were innocent. Veruović and Vrzić claim that with certainty.

To prove these allegations, the authors claim to have spent a lot of time investigating the entire case. They say they have studied thousands of pages of various documents, have found numerous illogicalities at every step of the way, and realised that almost every part of the assassination investigation was questionable. Veruović and Vrzić conclude that the official version of the truth about the murder of Đinđić was completely unsustainable, in contradiction to the laws of physics, the material evidences and the witness statements. Also, the events prior to the assassination such as 5 October, the mutiny in the JSO, the unsuccessful attempts on Đinđić’s life etc. they interpret by falsifying the facts to make them fit their conspiracy theory. Their interpretations of historical events from the democratic changes of 2000 up to today have gone unremarked by the public, despite the existence of extensive and reliable sources of information about events in Serbia after 5 October. Below follows an overview of these events in the context of the political background to the assassination.

5 October: Koštunica and Đinđić

Publicly celebrated as a victory of the people, the so-called 5 October revolution was actually the result of an agreement between the political players of the time and the police, military and state services on removing Milošević from power after the presidential elections, which he lost to Koštunica. In the elections of 24 September 2000, Milošević by a margin of 634,000 votes: as opposed to 2,400,000 votes for Koštunica, Milošević had over 1,800,00 votes. Refusing to admit defeat, Milošević caused a series of demonstrations all across Serbia which culminated in the protests in Belgrade on 5 October 2000. Only when the Yugoslav military and police decided not to confront the demonstrators in Belgrade ("the army is always on the side of the people”), but became part of the opposition trying to wangle the best position they could in post-5 October Serbia, Milošević had no other choice but to admit defeat and step down.

Vojislav Koštunica and Zoran Đinđić
Vojislav Koštunica and Zoran Đinđić

The 5 October outcome was negotiated by Zoran Đinđić and a few DOS leaders with the then heads of the military and police. They interceded in resolving the conflict between Milorad Ulemek Legija, commander of the Red Berets Special Operations Unit, and Nebojša Pavković, who controlled the army and the Cobras. A conflict between these two formations or with the demonstrators who had already broken into the National Assembly and RTS buildings, would have led to civil war and immense bloodshed. Fortunately, this was avoided because Legija and Pavković, in agreement with Đinđić and the DOS, decided to abandon the defeated Milošević and thereby facilitated the transfer of power. They saw the agreement as an opportunity to remain in powerful positions, sheltered from accusations of serious offences and war crimes. Soon they realised that Đinđić would not give them that kind of support or guarantee, and so they sought them from Koštunica, who in his first statements after the 5 October spoke in a conciliatory tone and promised there would be no reprisals.

In his first appearance on RTS as the new president, Koštunica announced that “there would be no revolutionary justice", which in practice meant Milošević’s political, police and military leadership would not be tried and their responsibility for mass crimes, genocide and ethnic cleansing during the wars in the former Yugoslavia would not be investigated. With this announcement, Koštunica signalled to the members of Milošević’s apparatus that they were safe with him as the head of the state, which implied continuation of Milošević’s nationalist politics, but this time by other means. Koštunica’s meetings behind closed doors with Patriarch Pavle, the then head of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, writer Dobrica Ćosić and other domestic and foreign nationalist figures, followed soon after 5 October and were a clear indicator that Milošević’s government apparatus along with the security service had gained a president that met their ideological and political criteria. Unlike the nationally “acceptable” Koštunica (similar to Milošević), Đinđić was marked as "the West’s man", ready to "send Serbs to the Hague at any cost” immediately after 5 October. Paradoxically, only after Milošević’s overthrow were these differences to have far graver consequences for Đinđić then in the 1990s: it was only in post-5-October Serbia that members of an unreformed state security service would eventually kill him.

The political, ethical and ideological differences between Koštunica and Đinđić do not date from 5 October. Choosing Koštunica for the position of joint opposition candidate in the 2000 presidential elections was part of a compromise reached within the opposition bloc that consisted of nineteen political parties. Even though the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) was led by Đinđić, Koštunica was chosen as joint candidate for the presidential elections. The decision was made because of expectations that Serbian voters were more likely to support “moderate nationalist” Koštunica as opposed to Đinđić, who was labelled by the public and the media as a traitor during the decade of Milošević’s dictatorship.

Ideological conflicts between Đinđić and Koštunica became clearly visible for the first time immediately after reactivating the work of the Democratic Party (DS). Koštunica’s DSS walked out of the DS and formed the nationalist DSS in 1992, “a right-of-centre conservative party” as was stated in the party platform at the time. The immediate reason for Koštunica’s leaving the DS was opposition from some of the party to the idea of the DS joining the DEPOS coalition. Immediately after, the DSS was founded with Koštunica at the head, supported ever since by the so-called “nationalist intelligence”, such as Matija Bećković, who in 1992 was already proclaiming Koštunica to be “the man of the future”.

Matija Bećković, Vojislav Koštunica, Irinej Bulović
Matija Bećković, Vojislav Koštunica and Irinej Bulović

Koštunica’s nationalism during the 90s could be compared with the nationalism of Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Vojislav Šešelj. A year after the genocide in Srebrenica, Koštunica published an article in Obraz magazine, precursor to the now banned neo-Nazi organization “Obraz Fatherland Movement”, which best illustrates his nationalist platform. Koštunica wrote several articles for this paper. One of the founders of Obraz with whom he stayed close even after 5 October was Andreja Mladenović, then a student, later spokesman for the DSS, today a high-ranking official of that party and deputy to the current mayor of Belgrade, Siniša Mali. Koštunica’s “moderate” greater-Serbian nationalism and other political and ideological differences were a bitter pill that Đinđić and some other DOS leaders had to swallow during the campaign for the 2000 presidential elections, because they knew that the militarily and politically defeated Milošević could only be beaten in the elections if his opponent seemed to be a more moderate type of nationalist. In that sense, Koštunica was a suitable candidate, although he was intended by the DOS leaders as a mere figurehead president in the years after the overthrow of Milošević. However, even his first days as a head of state were marked by support from the nationalist political, military, intellectual and media elite, who in the preceding years had encouraged Milošević and his war policies. Đinđić, on the other hand, was seen as prime minister designate of the first democratic government, and was supposed to play the key role in breaking with the war-criminal past of the Milošević regime and the legacy of his security services. Ideological and political differences between Đinđić and Koštunica, obvious long before 5 October, turned to open conflict on almost all subjects, of which the most important were cooperation with Hague Tribunal and reforming the security service.

6 October: Koštunica’s defence of Milošević’s State Security (DB), drawing closer to the JSO

After overthrowing Milošević, his government was dismissed, but elections for the new Parliament were not called immediately. This ushered in a period in which control of the state was in the hands of a transitional government, where each ministry had one minister from the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS). In practice, this meant a political blockade of executive power and the impossibility of decision-making. Out of all leaders and parties, the only real power was held by Koštunica as newly elected president of Yugoslavia and supreme commander of the Armed Forces (which gave him influence over the military security service). Because of this, Đinđić and the DOS requested the new president instantly to dismiss the infamous Head of State Security, Radomir Marković, and the Head of the General staff, Nebojša Pavković. Koštunica refused, declaring himself unauthorized, thus providing the DB with the opportunity of erasing all trace of their crimes. This act by Koštunica, occurring in the first days after “the revolution”, meant the practical continuity of Milošević’s rule. By 6 October, head of the service, Radomir Marković, ordered the burning and destruction of documentation in the State Security offices which showed the involvement of the DB in crimes committed during the 1990s. Radomir Marković was the only one later prosecuted for crimes committed during that period, while other members of the secret services were not brought to court. Evidence of the burning of documents was gathered in 2001, but to this day no one has been brought to justice. In his book “Punishment Without the Crime”, Marković testifies to meetings and agreements that were made with Koštunica in the immediate aftermath of 5 October. In the book, among other things, he says that the new president was “completely against” his replacement as head of the DB until the constitution of the new government.

In the autumn of 2000, there was rioting in Serbian prisons and a rebellion broke out among the Albanians in the south of Serbia; behind them, according to articles in the media, stood Marković and the unreformed state security services who wanted to destabilize the country. At the end of November, Carla Del Ponte declared at the United Nations that Hague Tribunal experts had found 520 graves with over 4000 human bodies in Kosovo. At the same time, Koštunica’s advisor for human rights, Gradimir Nalić, went to Kula for the feast of the patron saint of the Special Operations Unit, where he gave a speech promising protection to the members of the Red Berets if he became minister of police, and saying that Đinđić’s government would sell the unit out to The Hague, which was why they should support Koštunica.

After several months of political blockade of the work of the Serbian government, parliamentary elections were held in late December 2000. DOS won and took 70 percent of the seats. Zoran Đinđić became prime minister of Serbia in January 2001. Prior to this, in his capacity as president of the biggest opposition party, Milošević visited Koštunica, which aroused a storm of public interest. Koštunica’s interview to NIN from that time is additional evidence of his attitude that on 5 October, a transfer of power had occurred as in any other election, and also shows his sympathetic manner towards Milošević, whom he recognised as opposition leader in Serbia after 5 October, thus publicly relativising his responsibility for Serbia’s policies of war crimes during the 1990s.

Aleksandar Tijanić and Vojislav Koštunica
Aleksandar Tijanić and Vojislav Koštunica

Đinđić outlined his government’s platform in detail before the Assembly of Serbia on 24 January 2001.  Because of his intention to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal, in the first days of forming a government Đinđić was targeted by the media and intellectual elite, controlled by the remains of Milošević’s machinery, Koštunica stated that Milošević’s extradition to The Hague would destabilise the country and that he would not cooperate with Carla Del Ponte. At its first session, Đinđić’s government decided to remove Radomir Marković from his position as head of the DB. Marković earlier stated that he would leave his post only if Koštunica asked him to do so, although the matter was not under Koštunica’s jurisdiction. Shortly after the decision to dismiss him went into effect, instead of to the government, Marković submitted his resignation to Koštunica, explaining that he was doing so “in accordance with the promise he gave to President Koštunica and the agreement that was reached then: that he would remain in his position until the formation of the new government.”

Despite pressure to put Milorad Bracanović at the head of the DB as lobbied by the Red Berets, Đinđić appointed Goran Petrović to that position. In March 2001, Radomir Marković was arrested and charged with an attempted assassination on the Ibar highway. At the time, Koštunica signed a decree retiring Ratko Mladić and a week later, the Red Berets arrested Slobodan Milošević for abuse of official position. Reactions to this event were already a clear indicator of the depth of the breach between Koštunica and Đinđić. Referring to Đinđić’s decision to arrest Milošević, for example, Koštunica stated: ”Money is not the only measure. There is something called honour. We are ready to cooperate, but that does not mean we will accept anything that could jeopardise the dignity of our nation and state for a handful of dollars.”

In May 2001, Dušan Spasojević and Mile Luković were extradited from France to Serbia.  Legija reacted vehemently to the news by setting fire to the Tvrđava Club in Kula, after which Goran Petrović suspended him. Less than a month later, Legija was arrested for assaulting a police officer at Svetlana Ražnjatović’s birthday celebrations at a Belgrade club, Stupica. Ms. Ražnjatović was the wife of a war criminal, one of Serbia’s most hardened criminals, who in the years after the assassination openly supported Vojislav Koštunica. Shortly afterwards, Legija resigned as commander-in-chief of the JSO and quit his job at the Serbian Ministry of the Interior (MUP). His place as commander was taken by Dušan Maričić-Gumar.

At the beginning of June 2001, a meeting was held in the Palace of the Federation between Nebojša Pavković and members of Koštunica’s cabinet (Nalić, Rade Bulatović, Ljiljana Nedeljković and Aco Tomić). They met with Pavković in order to plan a military raid on the premises of the Government’s Communication Bureau. They requested him to capture the Bureau in a special forces operation, thus preventing audio surveillance of Koštunica, allegedly made from there. Pavković refused, but did not say a word about this development until his dismissal a year later, when he revealed the details of his meeting with Koštunica’s advisers. After that, the meeting at which Koštunica’s cabinet planned a coup was publicly known as “the drunken night in June” Aleksandar Vasiljević was also among those present, and in a 2008 appearance on the “Insider” TV programme, explained that a raid by the Cobras and the arrest of government employees had been requested by Gradimir Nalić, invoking Vojislav Koštunica.

Koštunica’s protest against Milošević’s extradition

On St. Vitus' Day 2001, Đinđić’s government extradited Slobodan Milošević to The Hague. The executive committee of Koštunica’s party made a decision to walk out of the DOS in protest. Koštunica went immediately to visit Patriarch Pavle. Later, in an interview to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, he stated that Milošević’s indictment “was stereotyped, schematized and empty”. In July 2001, when Milošević was already at The Hague, Koštunica said that his extradition could be considered a limited coup. In the following months, he continued to categorise the extradition in similar terms.

Momir Gavriović
Momir Gavriović

Later that summer, Koštunica’s DSS left the Serbian Government and embarked on a more determined media campaign to defame Đinđić as a criminal. A media campaign against Đinđić and his government, alleging links between Đinđić and organised crime, went into full swing, a campaign that for the next two years was to prepare the public ground for his assassination. The immediate reason for Koštunica’s withdrawal from the republican government was the murder of a former high-ranking official of State Security, Momir Gavrilović. Gavrilović was murdered in August 2001 after meeting with Koštunica’s associates. Since then, the media speculated that the murder was a consequence of the Đinđić government’s links to organised crime, which was also Koštunica’s reason for requesting a government reshuffle in the days following Gavrilović’s murder. According to the print media and claims by DSS officials and members of Koštunica’s cabinet, on the day of his murder, Gavrilović presented alleged evidence of corruption on the part of some politicians and their connection with organised crime; however, these claims were never proved. Koštunica himself said of the encounter: “He came concerned about the degree of criminalisation of society, wanting to point out the presence of organised crime in business life, the power and expansion of various clans, the things he as an experienced policeman considered to be inadequate responses or lenience, and the ineptness of the authorities and official bodies.”

From the Gavrilović murder to the Đinđić assassination, the media played a huge role in fabricating similar affairs whose goal was to destroy Government of Serbia, while labelling Đinđić as head of the mafia and a legitimate target for liquidation. At the same time, numerous people in political and public life, via the anti-Hague campaign that Legija called “Stop to The Hague”, singled out Đinđić publicly as a traitor who extradited Serbs to “The Hague dungeons” and requested his dismissal. Cooperation of Đinđić’s government with the Hague Tribunal and the then prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, was on an upturn after the extradition of Milošević. The Hague and the international community urged the Serbian Government to continue cooperation with the Tribunal and expedite extradition of the rest of the high-ranking political and military individuals from Milošević’s apparatus who were accused of war crimes. They also demanded extradition of the perpetrators of these crimes, who still were members of special units such as the Red Berets. The restoration of Serbia’s reputation abroad, the writing off of debts to foreign creditors, re-entry into the most important international organizations, financial support from international community and international financial institutions were directly dependent on the Serbian Government’s cooperation with The Hague.

Armed mutiny in the JSO

At the beginning of November 2001, the FRY Parliament passed the Criminal Procedure Code which envisaged extradition of Yugoslav citizens to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. This was soon followed by the arrest of the Banović brothers, whom The Hague charged with crimes committed in the Keraterm prison camp near Prijedor during the Bosnian war. The Banović brothers were arrested by members of the Red Berets, who at the time were unaware of their identity. A few days later, this served as a pretext for an armed mutiny organised in Belgrade. This motive for rebellion, presented in the media, was false. The real motives were fear on the part of Legija and other JSO members of extradition to The Hague, that the unit would be disbanded and their role in the attempted murder on the Ibar highway discovered in a trial which was on-going at the time, as well as fear of being put on trial for other murders, kidnappings and war crimes. At the time the Berets occupied part of the motorway at Belgrade, Legija was testifying at the Ibar highway trial. During that time, the JSO with 24 Hummers and fully armed was blocking the motorway near Belgrade’s Sava Centar.

The Berets presented their political demands, identical to those of the DSS: they wanted the resignation of Đinđić’s minister of the interior and the head of the DB, and the passing of a law on cooperation with The Hague. Koštunica, supreme commander of Armed Forces and therefore the only one at this point who could crush the armed rebellion, publicly supported it, comparing it to the doctors’ strike. During the mutiny, Aco Tomić and Nebojša Pavković travelled to Moscow under still unexplained circumstances, and on the same day Aco Tomić and Rade Bulatović met with Legija and Dušan Spasojević. At the time when the Berets came out on the streets, Đinđić was in Washington D.C. He hastily returned from the USA, organised a closed Government session, and went to the JSO headquarters in Kula. After meeting with JSO members, the Government refused to fulfil their demand and replace Minister of the Interior Dušan Mihajlović, but dismissed Goran Petrović as Head of the DB along with his deputy Zoran Mijatović. In their stead came Andreja Savić as the new Head of the DB, and Legija’s man Milorad Bracanović became his deputy. Once these demands had been met, the JSO called off their protest.

The JSO mutiny
The JSO mutiny
Photo: Tanjug

Political support to the Berets in the course of an armed rebellion represents the most important part of the political background to the Đinđić assassination, and to this day no court has cast any light on it. The many reactions to and justifications for the mutiny presented by politicians, journalists and other public figures, undeniably point to their responsibility in bringing about an atmosphere in which the same people who organised it assassinated Đinđić a year and a half later.

The media campaign against Zoran Đinđić

The trial of Milošević began at The Hague in 2002 and the media campaign against Đinđić and his government did not let up. The consequence of this public criminalisation of Đinđić was a drop in his popularity among the people. Đinđić then made a decision to start a series of trips across Serbia as a part of his famous campaign “Serbia on the right road”. At the same time, Koštunica’s adviser, Rade Bulatović, wrote an article for NIN, characterising the fulfilment of the JSO requests as “positive progress” and “a victory for patriotism”.

In mid-2002, the DSS presented their shadow cabinet, while its representatives blocked the Parliament by boycotting sessions. The Parliamentary Administrative Committee adopted a DOS proposal to replace the absentees by other people. The DSS reaction was to walk out of the Parliament, and the DOS presidency decided to exclude the DSS from the ruling coalition. In September 2002, letters by Ljiljana Buha  – who had been abducted by the Zemun Clan in May of the same year - began to emerge in public. The letters, dictated by Dušan Spasojević and Mile Luković, slandered Đinđić as a criminal linked to the mafia. The DSS, in their campaign for ongoing presidential elections, cited the letters as evidence of links between Đinđić and the Serbian government to organised crime. Koštunica himself during the campaign said that there was “some kind of secret connection between the mafia, criminals and the current authorities”.

The rest of 2002 saw unsuccessful elections for president of Serbia and the on-going, vicious media campaign against Đinđić and the Serbian government. In December, the Federal Parliament passed a Law on fighting organised crime, and the SOUs and the Zemun Clan blew up a company called “Defence Road” owned by Ljubiša Buha Čume, a future cooperating witness in the trial of members of the Zemun Clan and the JSO. Due to a low turn-out, even a re-run of the presidential elections failed, and after Milan Milutinović ended his term, Nataša Mićić became acting president of Serbia.

The assassination

In early 2003, Đinđić’s government discovered that the Zemun Clan was in possession of classified information, which served Đinđić as a motive to replace the leadership in the security services – Andrija Savić and Milorad Bracanović. At the same time, Đinđić publicly announced a dialogue at international level aimed at finding a solution to the status of Kosovo, and Milan Milutinović surrendered himself voluntarily to The Hague. Also in early 2003, the Special Prosecutor's Office and the Special Court (a separate department of the District Court for Organised Crime) were formed. At the end of January 2003, Legija published his famous “letter to the public”, in which he defended the accused held at The Hague, and accused the government of betraying national interests. The National Assembly declared the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, which left Koštunica without a post, and the DSS no longer held any power in the country. This greatly frustrated its members, who continued the campaign against the Government and Đinđić with greater determination than ever. (Let as mention only two examples: Koštunica’s media advisor Aleksandar Tijanić in those days stated: ”If Đinđić stays alive, Serbia will not”; Dragan Jočić said that Legija’s letter to the public was “an analysis of the political state of affairs and events after 5 October, that could be signed by the majority of citizens”, and declared Legija’s letter to be the voice of the people).

Rade Bulatović
Rade Bulatović

A few months after the first assassination attempt, Zoran Đinđić announced at a press conference that 2003 was the year of combat against organised crime. That announcement was also the first step towards replacing Legija’s men in the Security Information Agency (BIA) – Milorad Bracanović and Andrija Savić, in other words, preparation for the arrest of the members of the Zemun Clan. These events were of crucial significance, bearing in mind the fact that the criminal network, years in the making, was finally starting to lose its leverage. A cooperating witness, Ljubiša Buha, was also found and he was ready to give the authorities evidence against the Zemun Clan.

In February 2003, several attempts were made on Zoran Đinđić’s life: first at the Bubanj Potok road toll gate, where Zvezdan Jovanović, Željko Toljaga and Mile Luković planned to kill Đinđić, who was returning from Kopaonik where he had injured an Achilles tendon during a football match against the Gendarmerie. The attempt was abandoned due to an alleged fear of too many casualties, among who would be members of Đinđić’s family who were travelling with him. It is interesting that having heard of this attempt at assassinating the prime minister, the media and the vast majority of the public made fun of the whole thing, trying to diminish the figure of Zoran Đinđić, who was pretending his life was in danger; time and again he was gleefully told, that it was “his own people” that he should beware of.

The next attempt was at Limes Hall in Belgrade, where Dejan Milenković, otherwise known as Bagzi, blocked the prime minister’s motorcade with a truck, while other conspirators intended to fire a mortar at Đinđić’s vehicle. The third attempt was made in front of the National Assembly building; a group which again included Zvezdan Jovanović, planned to shoot Đinđić from the upper level of the “Tri lista duvana” garage on King Aleksandar Boulevard. They gave up this attempt because of security cameras on the Serbian Post Office building and inability to flee the crime scene. In late February 2003, Mira Marković went to Moscow, Vojislav Šešelj voluntarily surrendered himself to The Hague, warning before leaving that “by spring there will be blood up to your knees in Serbia”. At a Radical rally Tomislav Nikolić stated: “Tell Đinđić Tito also had problems with his leg before he died”. At the time of this ominous statement, the prime minister, was walking on crutches due to the tendon injury he sustained while playing football.

In early 2003, Jovan Prijić was appointed Special Prosecutor for the combat against organised crime. He took the testimony of cooperating witness Ljubiša Buha on crimes committed by members of the Zemun Clan. At the time, Čume was at a military base in Slovenia where he was hiding out from the Clan. One day before the assassination, Prijić returned from Slovakia with Čume’s statement, enabling the issue of an arrest warrant for the Clan members. At the same time, a fierce media campaign was being waged against Prijić and under pressure he resigned from the position of prosecutor on the morning of 12 March and left for Zrenjanin. On the same day, in front of the entrance to the Government of Serbia, members of the Zemun Clan killed Zoran Đinđić. Jovan Prijić returned to Belgrade and took charge of the case of the prime minister’s murder. Based on the investigation and Čume’s statement, the prosecutor and the police concluded that Đinđić was assassinated by members of the JSO along with members of the Zemun Clan. On the same night, arrest warrants were issued for them, and the government declared a state of emergency.

From the killers’ point of view: How 12 March was prepared

During the trial of Đinđić’s murderers, they described how they prepared for the assassination several days before Zvezdan Jovanović  fired the shot that killed Đinđić. We give here excerpts from the transcripts of the trial, in which Miladin Suvajdžić, a.k.a. Đura Mutavi, described preparations for the assassination and the reactions of Đinđić’s killers to the news that a state of emergency had been declared.

Zemun Clan
Zemun Clan

Miladin Suvajdžic (Đura Mutavi): “At that time I also went to that apartment, and heard they found some apartment where two old ladies lived, and that they would shoot the prime minister from that apartment. I guess they entered that apartment, said that they came to install satellite antennas, or something like that. I don’t know where exactly that apartment is, but that’s the story I heard. I know it was 8 March because Spasojević came with Kum to the apartment where I was staying, in Vojvode Stepe Street no. 104, to wish Ljilja Buha a happy 8 March, and brought her flowers. By that time, I already had rented all the apartments by then, and we had moved from Novi Beograd to the city centre. Someone went to Voždovac, someone to Vojislava Ilića Street, and the next day Spasojević went to Banovo Brdo. In those apartments no one lived before us, and he told me to equip them, bring plenty of food, juices, and everything, to bring sheets, etc, and to give him the keys of those two apartments.

The next day, so it was 9 March, I got a message around 7 o’clock in the evening to come to the apartment in Vojvode Stepe Street no. 259. Bagzi and Sretko Kalinić were there. By the way, when Bagzi was released after the assassination attempt and went into that apartment, he never once left it until this day. When I arrived at the apartment they were ready, the bags were packed and Bagzi told me that Spasojević had ordered him to drive the two of them to Sinđelić Street, apartment no. 40, and to take Spasojević’s things, all the phones, he had many phones there, and that I would go in front of them. I drove the Cadet, and they were in the Golf that belonged to Kalinić, a black Golf III. We came to the apartment and went in.

Meantime, I got a message to come urgently to the first one, which was the apartment in Velimir Todorović Street No. 2. That’s where Miloš Simović, Aleksandar Simović, Ninoslav Kostantinović and Milisavljević usually slept. Spasojević, Kum, Sretko, Konstantinović and the Simović brothers were there. Spasojević says: “Tomorrow you’ll go on the street for good luck.” I was probably pale, and he says: “Why are you scared? It’s not like you have to do anything, you’ll just stand there, so that all of us are involved.” Dušan asked Konstantinović if he was sure that it was safe, because then I still didn’t quite know what was safe and what wasn’t. He says: “Is that thing safe, is that a hundred percent safe?” and then he answered him that it was, that he didn’t have to worry, because everything would be fine. I know that Dušan said that Đinđić would be killed as soon as he came to the Government buildings, first time he came to the Government buildings, he would be killed.

The next morning I went out, as I was ordered, turned on the phone, called, and Miloš Simović soon answered, told me to drive from Partizan Stadium to Red Star Stadium, towards the roundabout on the way towards the “Kafe” cafe. I drove around for about half of an hour. That seemed pointless to me, and then I called Simović, and said to him: “Let me stop somewhere, what am I driving round and round these three streets for?” He was outside Rudo, and then he told me: “OK, Đuka, stop at the bus stop near Rudo.” So we were there from about 8.30 in the morning.

Meanwhile, Spasojević called me, just to see if I’d gone out, since Spasojević had my number. So he could call me, but I couldn’t call him. I could only call Simović. He told me while I was driving that my task was to call him if I see three BMWs, one black, in a motorcade. And he was right there, so that was silly. But, I was like, it doesn’t matter, he said it, and after that he called me to come inside the car, because it was cold, it was raining. I sat inside the car, and saw he had four special devices. One was for Spasojević and me, the second one was with that man from Đinđić’s security, the third was with the actors, the direct participants, in other words, the people who were supposed to kill him.

Ljubiša Buha Čume
Ljubiša Buha Čume

Then told them they had found some office, and to just go inside in the morning, they would be safe there till about 3 o’clock, but Spasojević said that if the assassination didn’t happen, they would leave the office at 2.30. The fourth phone was with Kum and someone else, I don’t know who else was on that line, but I know Kum was. Miša told me that the prime minister would be shot from there, and that his job was to inform them when he saw the motorcade of three cars, and then they could set up their rifles in time, so that the gun wouldn’t be at the window all the time, he would call them, and they had roughly worked it out – if, let’s say, there wasn’t heavy traffic on the stretch between Rudo and the Government buildings, it would take them 2-3 minutes to get there, enough time to set up the rifle.

Spasojević called several times, asked if they were safe in that office. I concluded that Spasojević didn’t have direct contact with the killers. He kept asking if they were safe. He called Miša again and again, and Miša says: “Everything’s OK, don’t get stressed.” He kept on asking about the guy from the security, if he’d called. And Miša says: “He’s not calling, but we agreed that when something happens, when the prime minister moves off, he’ll call us.” And so that day passed.

The next day (11 March), all of us went out again, and the day was almost the same. The only difference was that Spasojević and I switched cars. Spasojević said that the Golf III with the tinted windows was too conspicuous. He also asked me to buy him some medicine, because he’d caught a cold. Miša and I saw them seven or eight times, we saw them passing right by where we stood, near Rudo. And again, the day ended. The prime minister didn’t go to the Government buildings.

The next day was Wednesday (12 March). Again, we were there in the morning, and somewhere around 11 o’clock he contacted Spasojević several times, he called him constantly, although we were separated by then. At that point, I saw that Simonović was arguing with Spasojević, saying that there’s no chance they passed by, no way, hundred percent they didn’t pass by. I saw him yelling, he’s holding the phone and saying: “Đuka and I are here, they couldn’t get by us.” Then Spasojević hung up on him, and Simović says to me that Spasojević went crazy, that he’s yelling and screaming and that the two of us hadn’t noticed the motorcade. We were positive they hadn’t passed by, since we were standing at the bus stop right next to the road. And they had a fight; I mean not exactly a fight, Dušan told him all sort of things, I don’t know. Simonović told me to go back to the apartment.

That was around half past 11. Since I parked the car further away from there, when I went to the car, I also went to the apartment. Just as I got inside, I got a message on a pager to urgently call back. Since I couldn’t turn the special device on from the apartment, I went outside, and returned to Auto-komanda, turned on the phone, called him, and he told me to stay there near Auto-komanda, that there was a little park, in front were those shops, and at the back was a little park. He told me to stay there, in that park, and across from it there were taxi drivers. I don’t know for how long, since I was agitated, frightened, so I don’t know for how long I was sitting there, but not too long. I know that not much time had passed when Simović called me and told me to come urgently, as soon as possible, to the garages in Novi Beograd.

Milorad Ulemek Legija
Milorad Ulemek Legija

We had two garages across from the Palace of the Federation. That’s Boulevard AVNOJ, and there are some buildings there. I parked, and after a minute or two, since those are long garages with an underground passage, I saw Simović exiting the garage in an Ibiza. I saw that Konstantinović was with him and two other men, I didn’t know exactly who they were. They didn’t say a word or wave at me. I thought I should wait for someone else. It was clear to me that everything that was supposed to happen had already happened.

(12 March in the evening). Names were all over the TV, pictures came out, there was complete paranoia. “What’s this, what’s happening?” They hadn’t been expecting it. Spasojević was agitated because of the pictures, he wasn’t expecting that, they didn’t a think a state of emergency would be declared, but he said that it didn’t matter – they would go all the way. I was supposed to go to the apartment where Kum and Zvezdan were and to send Zvezdan a message to go to the Unit, that now everything was up to him, Spasojević repeated that like five times, and he was shaking me like this saying: ‘Tell him that everything is up to him, I’m waiting for him, and everything is up to him’, he kept on repeating to me. Then Spasojević, so before noon, when I found him, gave an order that, the minute his photo appeared, everybody was to be informed to take to the woods, if they didn’t have anywhere else to go, to go into the woods, and that not more than ten days was needed to raise the JSO, and if they went into the woods all of them should have a small radio set, and to listen in. He said that when the JSO moved off, we, he and his men would join them. But as soon as his picture appeared on TV, everybody should go, if they had some hiding place to find them for themselves, if not, to go into the woods.

He kept saying: ‘State of emergency’, he hadn’t expected that, but again he said that they would go all the way, either we’d be colonels, or dead. There could be no shilly-shallying, no surrender, to go all the way. He said that when the JSO headed out, they would take over the Government and some other vitally important institutions, like the airport, etc, and that there was no turning back. He said: ‘There’s no turning back with this gang, this is going all the way.’ He expected the JSO any day. Spasojević was beside himself. Pejaković said that he went to the Unit, and that he spoke, I don’t exactly know to whom, think he said he spoke to Gumar and Zvezdan, I don’t really know now, he spoke to one of them. They replied that they couldn’t react, that they were surrounded, and then said they’d arrested Leonid. Spasojević was furious and said: ‘How could you allow them to arrest Leonid? You should’ve reacted right away, he’s your man. How could you let some ordinary police arrest him?” Then he raged, and said that the JSO must rise up, that the Unit must organise, what were they waiting for, why couldn’t they, this, that and the other. He said: ‘It’s just them I’m waiting for’.

“Anyhow, I know he mentioned plans A, B, C. If necessary, the power lines were to be cut, the Gazela blown up, and things like that, I mean, I don’t want to repeat his language, all the things he said. Then he goes: ‘We must go for the show-down. There’s no more waiting. If we wait any longer, we’ll be lost."

Operation "Sablja" (Sabre)

The most extensive operation in the history of Serbian police began on the same day the members of the Zemun Clan killed Prime Minister Đinđić. At that point, people in the state and the parastate, war-criminals and criminals had been waging war for years against Zoran Đinđić and his closest associates, so it was immediately clear where the bullet that killed him came from.

The funeral of Zoran Đinđić
The funeral of Zoran Đinđić

Acting President of Serbia Nataša Mićić, at the Government’s proposal, declared a state of emergency a few hours after the assassination. Mićić explained the decision: “The assassination of the Prime Minister of Serbia, Dr Zoran Đinđić, is an attack on the constitutional order of the country and a most serious crime against the security and stability of our country. This criminal act is an attempt to halt the fight against organised crime, democratic reforms in the country, our return to the international community, and jeopardises the stability of both our country and the region.”

The same evening, the Government and the Ministry of the Interior (MUP) came out with concrete information: behind the assassination were the Zemun Clan and its leaders - Milorad Luković Legija, Dušan Spasojević Šiptar and Mile Luković Kum. Beside the three, the Interior Ministry issued an immediate arrest warrant for Dejan Milenković (Bagzi), Vladimir Milisavljević (Vlada Budala), Sretko Kalinić, Nikola Bajić, Miloš and Aleksandar Simović, Miladin Suvajdžić, Dušan and Đorđe Krsmanović, Milan Jurišić (Jure), Zoran Vukojević, Vladimir Jovanović (Japanac)... Ten days after the crime, the marksmen were also caught: Zvezdan Jovanović (Zveki), a lieutenant colonel and deputy commander of the Serbian Interior Ministry’s Special Operations Unit, his immediate associate Saša Pejaković (Pele), while Veselin Lečić (Leka) and commander of the Red Berets, Dušan Maričić (Gumar) were arrested for their close connections to members of the Zemun Clan.

Jovanović confessed to the crime. He told the investigators that he did it out of “conviction” and on the orders of former JSO commander Milorad Luković Legija. The murderer stated that there were five scenarios of the murder of Serbian prime minister, in other words, Đinđić was killed in the fifth attempt. The rifle that shot Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić was was found on 25 March on a lot between Boulevard Lenjin, Španskih Boraca Street, Boulevard Avnoj and Proleterske Solidarnosti Street, underneath a pile of concrete pieces. A Heckler and Koch rifle was found in a large black bag made of impregnated fabric, with a Winchester .308 bullet in the barrel and Carl Zeiss Jena optical sights, two cases of ammunition for the same weapon, and a 7,62mm CZ automatic rifle (Kalashnikov), with a filed off serial number. Expert analysis determined that Prime Minister Đinđić was shot by the Heckler and Koch rifle.

Soon after declaring a state of emergency, the Serbian Government made a decision to disband the Special Operations Unit, because of the involvement of certain of its members and commanders in the assassination. The Independent Police Trade Union was also banned. Almost on the same day, a mall in Šilerova Street in Zemun began to be torn down – the property of Dušan Spasojević and Mile Luković. Soon after, both their houses were also torn down, and excavators went to Milorad Luković Legija’s villa in Ilije Stojadinovića Street.

In just one month the following results were accomplished: the assassin of Zoran Đinđić was caught, a plan for a coup was thwarted, the murder of Ivan Stambolić was solved, Dušan Spasojević and Mile Luković, leaders of the Zemun Clan, were killed in a battle with the police, the culprits for a series of kidnappings and assassinations by ambush in Serbia were discovered, Generals Nebojša Pavković and Aco Tomić were arrested, members of the secret police and founders of the Red Berets, Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović also went to jail along with Milorad Bracanović, and celebrities Svetlana Ceca Ražnatović and Aca Lukas were put behind bars. During operation Sablja more than 11,000 persons were brought to justice, and over 2700 were detained. A total of 3650 criminal charges were filed against 3946 persons, who committed 5671 extortions, 29 murders, eight kidnappings, nine rapes, 47 cases of grand larceny and robbery, 229 robberies... There was a total haul of 74 kilos of drugs, of which about 28 kilos was heroine, half a kilo of cocaine, about 45 kilos of marihuana and around 5000 Ecstasy pills were confiscated.

Aco Tomić
Aco Tomić

In Operation "Sablja", police discovered a wealth of information about the plans of the Zemun gang and their political mentors. It was established that the organisers intended to provoke chaos in the country and then take over power. According to some testimonies by members of the Zemun Clan, Dušan Spasojević Šiptar was envisaged as future prime minister, while, according to the same version, Dragoljub Milanović was to head the national television. It was also “planned” that “the new regime would be constituted by patriotic forces”.

After the assassination of Prime Minister Đinđić, Zoran Živković took over as the head of government and of the DS. At the moment of taking up these posts, he was deputy president of the DS. Although Živković was formally the government leader, the main organiser and conductor of Operation Sablja was Vladimir Beba Popović, Đinđić’s closest associate and head of the Serbian Government Communication Bureau at the time. Popović spoke about his role on am Insider programme, broadcast at the end of March 2005, while answering questions about the investigation, which led to Vojislav Koštunica: “I am a Government official. I announce what I receive from the Government bodies responsible. I said that, not because I made it up, but because I was told to say it, and because it was true, and because the investigation of Zoran Đinđić’s murder, as it was opened, led us an advisor of President Koštunica, and not just any one, but his security advisor. She came to Koštunica’s head of the Military Security Service. She came to financiers or supporters of Vojislav Koštunica’s party, and to dozens of other people whose names you never heard of, they never appeared, because right after that, a day or two after that, Koštunica held a defensive meeting in the City Assembly, as if he was preparing the main board of the DSS for war, where in order to protect himself, he launched into an attack on me… This was clear to me when he asked me to meet Mauricio Masari and his media assistant, Giovanni Porta, although in the last two years he had never seen me, nor met me, and there was never any need to ask each other anything. But then he asked me to see him urgently, supposedly to talk about the media. Afterwards, he immediately started to go on about: ‘What will happen with Koštunica? What will happen if the investigation leads to Koštunica?’ I said:”Well, I don’t know what will happen. What’s supposed to happen will happen.”. “Well, no”, and then, ‘But if it turns out he was involved?’ I reply: ‘What will be? It’ll be as it would be in your country’. ‘Well, you know, we’re a democratic country...but you’re still... Koštunica is the leading politician.’ That annoyed me. Then I said to him: ‘Wait, I don’t understand. What are you trying to say? That because we’re not a sufficiently developed country, the rules don’t apply here? So if it turns out that Koštunica is involved, then it doesn’t matter? Better to let Koštunica’s involvement go than have the radicals in power.’”

Vojislav Koštunica wrote a letter to General Aca Tomić, who was arrested on 8 April 2003 during operation "Sablja". A letter from Koštunica arrived for him at the Belgrade District Jail, in which the DSS leader asked him to hold out and to remain silent.

Koštunica and Tadić come to power

Although from the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, Zoran Đinđić was up to the time of his murder systematically demonised by almost all political movers, the media, even by public figures who during the 1990s were opponents of Milošević’s policies, on the day of his murder, almost all of Serbia fell silent. More than 300,000 people went out onto the streets, wanting to pay tribute to the dead prime minister. On the other hand, at the DSS main office toasts were drunk in whisky.

Boris Tadić
Boris Tadić

Certain chroniclers of the period following operation Sablja say that the then prime minister, Zoran Živković, made a mistake in not calling elections right away, because the results would sideline anti-European forces personified mostly in the DSS, instead of practically bringing them to power a year later. Živković was mentioned as a prime minister who did not resist pressure from foreign diplomats not to arrest Vojislav Koštunica. “Former Prime Minister of Serbia Zoran Živković gave in to the pressures of western diplomats, and agreed not to arrest Vojislav Koštunica for the murder of Đinđić”, claimed Srđa Popović, legal representative of Đinđić’s mother and sister. Although Živković denied this, claiming there was no evidence of Vojislav Koštunica’s involvement in Đinđić’s murder, in other words, that was the reason why there was no investigation into the DSS leaders and members of his cabinet, the criminal charges lodged by the legal representative of the dead premier’s mother and sister remain as a document of that period, presenting in an unequivocal manner the role of the above persons in the assassination.

As the investigation approached, Vojislav Koštunica and members of his cabinet embarked on a media campaign, explaining how Zoran Đinđić was actually murdered by his closest associates. Following years of accusations that the prime minister and his closest associates were hardened criminals, smugglers and leaders of the underground this campaign, launched once again by Đinđić’s political enemies, was easily accepted by the public, even by those who certainly were not close to DSS policies. In 2003, the DSS released a famous public statement which in the following years became a paradigm of spin by that party and embodied in a single sentence by Dejan Mihajlov: “What is there not to understand in his mother’s words?” Namely, in the middle of campaigning for presidential elections, this DSS official held a press conference (where reporters were not allowed to ask questions), accusing politicians from the former government of being complicit in Đinđić’s murder. “They kept silent when the prime minister was killed. They knew who made the decision to kill Đinđić, and they knew who murdered him. Đinđić’s mother says so clearly: ‘My son was killed by his own people, and a former minister clearly said that to me.’ So, what was there not to understand in his mother’s words, what is there not to understand in the attitude of Đinđić’s wife, who refuses to allow any of Đinđić’s closest associates into her home, those who sold him out, or maybe even worse?” These words were written in Mihajlov’s speech. The following day, G17 Plus and the Serbian Renewal Movement (SRM), which after the assassination of Prime Minister Đinđić somehow found themselves on the same side as Vojislav Koštunica and the DSS and made a pact just before presidential elections, asked the DSS to dissociate themselves from what Dejan Mihajlov had said.

It should be pointed out that DSS, SPS and Serbian Radical Party (SRS), in the next few years grew stronger by stirring up drastic nationalism and an anti-European, pro-Russian attitude among the electorate. In October 2003, the Serbian Government began to debate a no-confidence vote initiated by opposition. In the middle of the debate, on 13 November, the then acting President of the Republic, Nataša Mićić, dismissed parliament and scheduled early parliamentary elections for 28 December. DOS fell apart before the elections and the DS decided to stand independently, their candidate being Boris Tadić, vice-president of the party.

At the time, the story of the so-called third bullet was publicly launched for the first time. No matter how ridiculous the theory was of someone shooting Đinđić at the same time as Zvezdan Jovanović, who had admitted to the killing, and of a clandestine third bullet that actually did the deed, it was accepted by the public and seemed to raise a legitimate doubt, casting a shadow on the truth about the murder shown at the trial of the assassins.

On 3 March 2004, Vojislav Koštunica was elected prime minister of Serbia in a minority government (DSS, G17 Plus, SRM and New Serbia –NS-), supported by the SPS. Parallel to this, in elections for president of the DS in February 2004, Boris Tadić was elected as the new head of the party, and soon after that became president of Serbia, in the elections of June 2004. The outset of Vojislav Koštunica’s regime was marked by sharp conflict with the leaders of Operation Sablja, with reprisals taken against the means used and the achievements of that operation. Clear euro-scepticism, a return to the “values” of a strong alliance between Serbia and Russia, a side-lining of the democratic changes of 5 October, a negative view of Kosovo’s independence, a proclaiming of nationalist views, policies that led to strained relations in the region and the termination of cooperation with the Hague Tribunal – these were the foundations of Koštunica’s electoral success.

Vojislav Koštunica and Boris Tadić
Vojislav Koštunica and Boris Tadić

A year and a half after the termination of Sablja, its main figures from the police and the Prosecutor's Office were replaced and moved to less important positions. In March 2004, former Assistant Minister and head of the Department of Public Safety, Colonel General Sreten Lukić, Deputy Minister Nenad Miletić and assistant to the head of the Directorate for Combating Organised Crime, Dragan Karleuša, were dismissed from the top echelons of the police. It should be mentioned that because of The Hague indictment of October 2003, it was certain that Lukić would be replaced, while Dragan Karleuša stated that it was his own request to be retired, that he had fulfilled the conditions for his retirement five years before in October 2000, and that he submitted his retirement request “just recently”; furthermore, he didn’t want to talk about it “because it was no longer of any importance”. Almost simultaneously, in March 2004, Milan Obradović was relieved of his position as head of Belgrade police with the explanation that, he was allegedly responsible for the burning of the Belgrade mosque on the night between 17 and 18 March. Although he was seen as one of the greatest experts for organised crime in Serbia, he was transferred to the position of an advisor to the Department of the Interior (OUP). The head of the Belgrade City Department of the Interior (GSUP), Branko Možgon was, let’s say, transferred to the fire department. Srbislav Ranđelović, first general inspector of the MUP, was also replaced, as well as the head of the Criminal Police Directorate of the MUP, Mile Novaković, who during Sablja enjoyed vast authority, was transferred to the police department for aliens, as head of the Border Police Directorate. General Boro Banjac, head of the Directorate for Combating Organised Crime came to the post of head of the Čukarica OUP, while his predecessor, Colonel Vladan Anojčić, became an operative in the Zvezdara OUP. It should be pointed out that shortly before his replacement, Banjac, by wiretapping phone conversations, discovered negotiations between Biljana Kajganić, the attorney representing Dejan Milenković Bagzi (accused of Zoran Đinđić’s murder), and representatives of the current authorities.

That, of course, was followed by a huge purge in the Security Information Agency. Immediately following the formation of the new government, director of the agency Miša Milićević and his deputy Goran Živaljević were dismissed, and the new director became Rade Bulatović, a man who was in prison during Operation Sablja, and who celebrated the success of the JSO armed mutiny as “a victory for patriotism”. This member of the Yugoslav Left (JUL) was implicated in numerous affairs on which we will not linger here. The current authorities – the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and the SPS - have appointed him the ambassador in Ukraine.

Soon after the DSS came to power, the first verdicts awarding damages for arrests during operation Sablja were delivered. Among many to receive compensation were, of course, Aco Tomić and Rade Bulatović, who obtained six million and 667,000 dinars respectively from the state. It was also noted that the then president of Serbia and the leader of the democrats, Boris Tadić, apologized to Ceca Ražnatović for her imprisonment during Sablja, saying “it was a mistake”.

Three years after these events, the then president of Serbia and DS leader formed a government with Koštunica, after the adoption of the new Constitution of Serbia – the joint project of both leaders, judged to be retrograde, unsuited to reality, nationalistic and certainly the highest legal act which would have to change significantly in the process of European integration.

The trial of the assassins, obstruction of the process, verdict

The trial of the group of 36 defendants for the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić and other crimes in the Special Department of the Belgrade District Court began on 22 December 2003. Marko Kljajević presided over the Trial Chamber, and Milan Radovanović and Nebojša Maraš, deputies to the special prosecutor, represented the indictment. A week after the trial opened, parliamentary elections were held in Serbia, and “patriotic” forces won – most seats in parliament being taken by Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and Koštunica’s DSS.

Dragan Jočić
Dragan Jočić

A few months later, on 3 March 2004, Koštunica became Serbian prime minister. To the leading positions in the country he appointed members of his cabinet from the time of the JSO: Rade Bulatović as director of the BIA, Aleksandar Tijanić as director of national television, and Dragan Jočić became Minister of the Interior. Koštunica’s coming to the position of prime minister was the practical realisation of the assassins’ plan to bring “patriots” - the political enemies of Zoran Đinđić and his government - to power, by killing him. One of the peculiarities of the assassination trial is that it began with one prime minister and one government, and continued under a prime minister and a government which had the most to gain politically from that murder.

It is not surprising, then, that obstructions to the trial of Đinđić’s murderers began immediately after Koštunica came to power. Members of his government and his closest associates publicly pressured the Court, led a campaign against Special Prosecutor Prijić, his deputies, and finally, against the President of the Trial Chamber, Marko Kljajević. We give here few examples of these pressures: Minister of Justice Zoran Stojković many times stated: “The Special Court should be dismissed”; Dragan Jočić, then Minister of the Interior, demanded that the entire process “be returned to the investigation stage”; Koštunica’s advisor Gradimir Nalić stated that the process was staged by “the real assassins”; secretary of Koštunica’s Government Dejan Mihajlov said that the real killers “should be looked for within the government of Zoran Đinđić”.

At the trial, members of the JSO and the Zemun Clan threatened the judges, the prosecutors and other participants of the process. The prime minister’s bodyguard Milan Veruović, who had already been deceiving the public for a year with his third bullet theory, for the first time, declared in court that three shots could be heard during the assassination of Đinđić, and that when admitted to the hospital’s emergency department, he was resuscitated by a doctor close to Legija, who was known among members of the Zemun Clan as “Dr Death”.

In May 2004, after 14 months of hiding, first defendant Milorad Ulemek Legija appeared outside his house in Belgrade and gave himself up to the MUP. He later stated that he surrendered because “he trusted the new authorities”. Legija’s surrender was marked by illegal procedure on the part of Minister of the Interior Jocić and the then head of the BIA, Rade Bulatović, who as soon as Legija had given himself up, talked to him for hours in the MUP building. Also present at that lengthy meeting were the present head of public security Miroslav Milošević, Koštunica’s head of cabinet Aleksandar Nikitović and Aleksandar Tijanić.

Zoran Stojković
Zoran Stojković

What course this briefing took and what was said remained unknown, but there is a reasonable suspicion that Koštunica’s associates firmly influenced Legija’s later attitude and the substance of his statements during the trial. Minister Jočić first lied in public, saying that the meeting never took place, later said that it wasn’t important if it had happened or not, then tried to justify it by saying that the MUP building was more suitable than a court because Legija was a dangerous man, ending with the unlikely statement that the meeting was held in the MUP because the Central Prison “wasn’t open at night”. During the meeting, an official note was made, which Minister Jocić for a long time refused to make publicly available. Only two years later, thanks to the persistency of “Insider” journalists, the MUP handed over the official note on this meeting.

Since Legija’s surrender and his first appearance in court, he became a media star. Many of the local media, along with the DSS announced Legija’s appearance in court as a chance for “revealing the real truth about Đinđić’s murder”. At the same time, numerous items were published, once again depicting Đinđić as a criminal. Members of Koštunica’s Government and his cabinet added certain weight to these pressures, because their public statements were constantly repeated, which altogether created an unbearable cacophony that surrounded the trial.

In September 2004 the weekly "Vreme" published a transcript of the conversation between Dejan Milenković, a.k.a. Bagzi, who at that point was on the run, and his attorney Biljana Kajganić. In this conversation, Kajganić offered Bagzi the position of cooperating witness, saying that she “took care of it with her old buddies”, Minister of Police Dragan Jočić, who “agreed right away” and Rade Bulatović, head of the BIA, who confirmed that after consulting with “those at the top”. The condition of being granted cooperating witness status was to falsely accuse Ljubiša Buha Čume of organising Momir Gavrilović’s murder in August 2001. Transcripts of this conversation, which were considered to be key evidence in revealing the political background to the assassination, even though part of the court records, mysteriously disappeared.

In 2005, Jovan Prijić was replaced as Special Prosecutor for Organised Crime by Slobodan Radovanović, who was later to become Republican Public Prosecutor. After Radovanović’s appointment to special prosecutor, Prijić’s deputy Milan Radovanović was arrested on charges of divulging state secrets to his wife. Radovanović was a member of the original Special Court and participated in writing the indictment. He died of a heart attack in 2006 in the District Jail, where he was in custody along with members of the JSO and the Zemun Clan, against whom he had written the indictment.

Meanwhile, the pressures exerted by Koštunica’s government on presiding judge Marko Kljajević culminated with the arrest of his brother Goran Kljajević, then president of the Commercial Court. Marko Kljajević asked to be dropped from the court, explaining that he could not work under pressure, and left in August 2006. Koštunica’s government, which at the time was in cohabitation with Boris Tadić, appointed Nata Mesarović chairperson of the Trial Chamber in the case of the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić.

Dejan Mihajlov and Vojislav Koštunica
Dejan Mihajlov and Vojislav Koštunica

At this period, a proposal to expand the indictment made by Srđa Popović, the attorney representing the Đinđić family, was rejected. In court, Judge Mesarović overruled all proposals that might lead to revealing the political background to the assassination. (We quote just two examples: Popović was forbidden to ask Aca Tomić a question about the visits he had received from Legija and Dušan Spasojević during the JSO mutiny. She also denied access to the transcript of the conversation between Biljana Kajganić and Dejan Milenković Bagzi, and in fact removed the subject from the agenda).

In his closing statement, Srđa Popović explained why he thought the Court overruled his proposed evidence with an unsustainable explanation and pointed out: “When I embarked on this trial, I envisioned my closing statement differently. But I realise there’s no need for this different statement. The guilt of the men sitting in the dock is banal. As always, they did what they were told to do. Maybe I shall have the opportunity of presenting a different closing statement at some later trial for the murder of Zoran Đinđić, when those who organised and ordered it will be the ones being tried.”

Four years later, on 23 May 2007 “the trial of the century” for the murder of the prime minister of Serbia ended. Members of the JSO and Zemun Clan were sentenced to a total of 378 years. Judge Nata Mesarović, in 2009, during the rule of Boris Tadić and DS, was promoted to President of the Supreme Court of Serbia, the Supreme Court of Cassation, the highest court in the country. She also came to head the High Court Council, and conducted judicial reform in 2009, which was accompanied by many scandals and irregularities. One of the scandals was a complaint by unelected judges and prosecutors to the Constitutional Court of Serbia, which ruled that the High Court Council and the State Prosecutors Council had violated the Constitution and the law during re-election.

Part of the public assessed this judicial reform as one of the most retrograde political and social processes since the democratic changes of 2000. At the time, the media wrote about illegalities in duplicating the posts held by Mesarović, as well as the double and triple salaries she received. Nata Mesarović was never called to account and retired in 2014.

The legacy of Srđa Popović: Discovering the political background to the assassination

The success of the armed mutiny of the JSO in 2001 is reflected in the fact that members of the Red Berets managed to force Đinđić’s government to fulfil their political demands (dismissals at the head of the State Security Service), and so were able to install people close to the Unit in the secret service. A specific consequence of the mutiny was the appointment of Milorad Bracanović as head of State Security, which caused Đinđić’s government to lose control of the service and the JSO. With Bracanović at the head of the service, as was reiterated several times during the assassination trial, the JSO and the Zemun Clan had a direct insight into everything that Đinđić’s government did and intended to do, including plans for combating organised crime and cooperation with The Hague.

Srđa Popović
Srđa Popović

Responsibility for the success of the armed mutiny and the political support the JSO was getting from Vojislav Koštunica, who, as supreme commander of Armed Forces, was the only one who could (and was constitutionally obliged to) crush the rebellion, has not been scrutinised by a court to this day. The JSO mutiny was successful primarily because of the political support they had from Koštunica and his cabinet, and that success could only have been prevented if Koštunica and the army had carried out their duty to crush it at that moment. Given the consequences of the mutiny’s success, the support provided to it by Koštunica and his cabinet played a key role in the success of the assassination of Zoran Đinđić on 12 March 2003.

Srđa Popović, Đinđić family’s attorney, did most to resolve in court the issue of responsibility for the armed mutiny, which would reveal the political background to the assassination and the conspirators, who were not part of the original indictment for assassination. Therefore, in July 2005, Popović submitted a proposal to the Special Prosecutor’s Office to expand the indictment of Legija for armed rebellion. In the next few years, Popović would also submit to the Special Prosecutor’s Office: a proposal to supplement the evidentiary proceedings (2007), then criminal charges against Koštunica, Legija and the rest for armed rebellion (2010) and criminal charges against Nebojša Čović and Velimir Ilić (2011). Popović held the view that the JSO mutiny was a serious crime that should have been prosecuted, because there was much evidence, already presented in the case of Zoran Đinđić’s murder, and pointing at the person who organised, led and politically supported it.

About the attitude of the Special Prosecutor’s Office towards these proposals and the reasons for not pressing charges for armed rebellion, Srđa Popović says: “Rajko Danilović, Rade Paunović and I, back in 2005, requested the expansion of the proceedings to armed rebellion. Then we had a meeting in the Prosecutor’s Office; the then Special Prosecutor Radovanović and Jovan Prijić, who was conducting the proceedings, were present. They told us – Rade Paunović made an official note of that, kept some kind of minutes of the meeting- that they agreed that armed rebellion is a serious offence, that it should be brought to court, that there was much evidence which already had been presented to the court in the case of Zoran Đinđić’s assassination, which pointed to the one who organised and led the mutiny. But they said to us: ‘The trial is near the end. Let’s not complicate things too much, we will put the subject together the minute you make your final statements in the assassination proceedings.’ There was no point in arguing and bargaining with them, so we said that that was all right. Then, the instant the trial ended, Special Prosecutor Radovanović came and said: ‘No, no, we’ll do that when the verdict for the assassination becomes final.’ It took another 3-4 years before the verdict became final. When it did become final, they were still saying: ‘Yes, we will start the proceedings’, but they were also saying that it was very complicated, and that no one knew when it would be determined, I think the current Special Prosecutor Radisavljević stated that. But as long as they were talking about it, we thought – Very well, we’ll wait, we’ll wait for those dates they promised us to expire. In the end, it turned out nothing would happen.”

In the proposal for expansion of the indictment from 2005, Srđa Popović demanded that the Special Prosecutor’s Office expand the indictment of Milorad Ulemek Legija to indictment for the crime of armed rebellion, based on the evidence presented in court. In the original indictment for the assassination from 2003, a factual situation was described from which would derive the existence of the crime of armed rebellion in relation to Legija, but he was not charged for that crime. Although, based on Popović’s allegations, evidence presented at the trial proved with certainty facts that constituted the basis of the crime of armed rebellion, and determined Legija’s responsibility for that crime. Srđa Popović, along with the two colleagues with whom he submitted the proposal for expansion, was received by the Prosecutor in December 2005. They were told that there was no point in including their proposal in the indictment, since the trial was at an end.

Miljko Radisavljević
Miljko Radisavljević

Two year later, attorney Popović submitted the proposal to supplement the evidentiary proceedings, where among other things, he suggested new witnesses to be brought before the Special Court: Aca Tomić, Rade Bulatović, Dragan Jočić, Aleksandar Tijanić i Vojislav Koštunica. Some of the accused stated at the trial that their intention was not to just kill Zoran Đinđić, but, according to Zvezdan Jovanović, to “save Serbia”, that is, to “bring patriots to power instead of the treacherous DOS’s government”. The main objective of this proposal was to determine the political motivation of Ulemek and the rest of defendants for killing Zoran Đinđić, staging a coup, and bringing so-called “patriotic” forces to the head of the state. The intention was also to cast light on whose behalf the assassins planned and executed the coup, who “the patriots” mentioned in their statements were, as well as to give the proposed witnesses the chance to answer claims concerning their support to the armed mutiny of the JSO, uttered during the trial. This was very important, because the trial at that point had been going on for four years, during which almost everything from the indictment was clarified except for the most important aspects, which qualified Đinđić’s murder as a political act. Popović insisted that, as stated in the original indictment, the assassination of Đinđić was not a “regular” murder but the murder of the highest representative of state authority, which qualified it as a crime against the constitutional order and safety, that attacked the political values of that society. In his proposal to supplement the evidentiary proceedings, Popović suggested seven witnesses, along with 40 written depositions, in order to point to the facts and circumstances explaining the political climate at that point, and to the one who stood to gain politically from Đinđić’s murder, and/or the success of a coup. The court overruled this proposal, indicating its reluctance to summon high representatives of the authorities to court, not even as witnesses.

On the ninth anniversary of the JSO mutiny, on 11 November 2010, Srđa Popović as legal representative of Zoran Đinđić’s mother and sister, filed with the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Organised Crime criminal charges for armed rebellion against Milorad Ulemek Legija, Zvezdan Jovanović, Vojislav Koštunica, Aco Tomić and five other accomplices.

Only a few hours after filing these criminal charges, the DSS, with astonishing vulgarity, rejected the accusations in Popović’s proposal, using the opportunity to insult the attorney who was called “a morally depraved and perverted creature”; the DSS, they said with “complete contempt unmasked moral degeneracy of attorney Popović and strongly condemned the instigator of this abominable hysteria”. Announcement of the criminal charges and the DSS’s reaction aroused stormy reactions from the public. A few months later, before the anniversary of the assassination, Prosecutor Miljko Radisavljević announced that, as part of pre-trial proceedings related to examining the political background to the assassination of Prime Minister Đinđić, Koštunica, along with former heads of the State Security Goran Petrović and Zoran Mijatović, would be questioned. On the same day, Koštunica and the DSS launched the petition “against the persecution of Vojislav Koštunica”, which in a very short space of time was signed by over 250 persons from Serbian public and political life - an attempt at pressuring the Prosecutor’s Office into ignore turning a deaf ear to Popović’s charges and the questioning of Koštunica.

In the charges, Srđa Popović focused on the congruence of the political demands of the JSO during the armed mutiny with the political demands of the DSS and Koštunica. Popović also noted an extraordinary similarity between statements released during the mutiny by the JSO and the DSS. He included 25 counts in the charges, in which he revealed the uniformity of their political motives, demands and objectives. Attorney Popović also included in his criminal charge over 50 attachments in support of his statements.

In response to Popović’s criminal charge against Koštunica and others which received a lot of media attention, the Prosecutor’s Office for Organised Crime in 2010 first of all launched an investigation into the JSO armed mutiny, presented as the first step towards final clarification of the political background to the assassination. Only two years later, in 2012, the same Office issued an indictment for the mutiny. However, the indictment included the same people already accused of the assassination, while the circumstances that actually led to the mutiny and its success and which would have revealed the political instigators and organisers both of the mutiny and Đinđić’s assassination, were overlooked by this indictment and not questioned. On the other hand, the indictment separated these two events, and Prosecutor Radisavljević said that the JSO mutiny and the assassination were incidents which only “chronologically preceded each other”, which conflicted with the original assassination indictment. All of this left room for the opinion that the aim of this indictment could only be to resolve the issue of the mutiny in court, without further investigating its political background and the background to Đinđić’s assassination.

Vojislav Koštunica
Vojislav Koštunica
Photo: Tanjug

Prosecutor Miljko Radisavljević and the Prosecutor’s Office played a key role in this case, and issued anindictment that did not provide an opportunity of revealing anything new, or that had not been established in the assassination trial. Srđa Popović’s proposals and criminal charges were ignored, and his charge against Koštunica and others was not accepted, with the explanation that the allegations “were not supported by the evidence”.

In mid-December of 2001, Srđa Popović on behalf of Gordana and Mila Minić filed criminal charges against Nebojša Čović and Velimir Ilić. Popović accused them of not reporting the crime of attack on the constitutional system prepared by Ulemek, and accused Nebojša Čović of supporting the assassination of Zoran Đinđić and instigating Milorad Ulemek Legija and Dušan Spasojević to carry it out.

Nebojša Čović’s role in planning the assassination was mentioned for the first time in 2006 at the trial of Đinđić’s murderers. Dejan Milenković Bagzi then testified that when Ulemek and Spasojević decided to kill Zoran Đinđić, they started to look for political figures and parties that would support this plan. Answering a question from the bench as to which parties and persons these were, Bagzi replied that they were the SRS and Nebojša Čović. He also testified that Dušan Spasojević told the conspirators that they had Čović’s support, that he assured them that after the assassination he would become prime minister, which would have protected the members of the JSO and the Zemun Clan and relieved them of responsibility for the assassination. Miloš Simović, one of those accused of the assassination, during the trial described Čović’s role in planning the assassination in the same way.

In this charge, Velimir Ilić was accused of being responsible for not reporting a crime. After the assassination attempt at Limes hall and Legija’s letter to the public, Milorad Ulemek started writing letters to people, whom he assumed to be hostile towards, or in direct conflict with Zoran Đinđić. Ulemek sent the letters to Miroljub Labus, Velimir Ilić and Slobodan Vuksanović. In it he suggested that the time for a new 5 October had come and called on them to overthrow Đinđić’s government on the streets. Velimir Ilić claimed that he had reported receiving Legija’s letter to the then vice-premier of Đinđić’s government, Nebojša Čović, and that Čović assured him that it was all “rubbish”, that Legija was “his boy”, and to forget the whole thing. It is quite incomprehensible how Čović could’ve treated this kind of threat as “rubbish”, especially in view of the fact that Legija’s letter arrived after the attempted assassination at Limes hall.

In the days of the mutiny, Velimir Ilić publicly supported the JSO. Nebojša Čović claimed that it was not a rebellion, but mere “dissatisfaction” on the part of the Red Berets, and Slobodan Vuksanović publicly called for a gathering of “patriotic forces” and the formation of an opposition bloc that would bring about a new 5 October.

Nebojša Čović
Nebojša Čović

The charges against Čović and Ilić resonated in public similarly to the charge against Koštunica. Čović and Ilić defended themselves in the media in the days after the charges were published, in a way that even more clearly highlighted their responsibility for the actions of which they were accused. A month after pressing charges and based on their statements and media appearances, Srđa Popović published an article in which he analysed in detail Ilić’s and Čović’s “defence”. The Special Prosecutor’s Office for Combating Organised Crime made no move to begin judicial proceedings despite Popović’s charges, even though Radisavljević, when the charges were submitted, stated that the Prosecutor’s Office “had started to process them immediately”.

In failing to act on Popović’s proposals while at the same time constructing an indictment of the mutiny that examined only the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of the assassination, the Prosecutor’s Office is directly responsible for the fact that 12 years after Zoran Đinđić’s death, there has been no court epilogue that would clarify the political background to his assassination.. After the death of attorney Srđa Popović in the fall of 2013, public demands for a court investigation into the political background to the assassination and the JSO mutiny of November 2001, have all but faded away.


Twelve years after the assassination of Zoran Đinđić, public opinion in Serbia is characterised by a notably contradictory belief: everybody agrees that there is a political background to the assassination and that it has not been investigated. However, it is contradictory and devastating that the assassins of the Prime Minister have won, not only by assassinating Đinđić, but also because of their success in covering up their role in that crime, carefully and with dedication putting about lies for years that they do not form part of the political background, but that Đinđić’s associates, the CIA, the USA, Great Britain and other Western countries do.

On the other hand, there is a belief, albeit to a much lesser extent, that besides the people who directly supported the JSO, the political background also consists of Đinđić’s political heirs who refused to call them to account, preferring instead to form coalitions and formed a joint government with them.

Zoran Đinđić
Zoran Đinđić

It is also striking that the people who really were Đinđić’s closest associates and who for many years after the assassination were not on the same side as those who hushed up its political background, never took any serious initiative or action or even made it a platform priority to nail the responsibility of those who politically supported and ordered the assassination. In such an atmosphere, it seems logical that the majority believe in conspiracy theories such as the third bullet, acknowledging and adopting them as their own attitude, no matter how meaningless, illogical and silly those theories are. The local media do much to help them, together with authors of these fantasies, persistently and tirelessly polluting the public space for over twelve years now.

The consequences of the assassination of Đinđić are numerous and far-reaching: Serbian society has slipped backwards in an infinite number of ways since his death. The new nationalism that has developed and taken root in the meantime, thanks to those who came after him, is opposed to the ideals of what are widely considered to be his political principles: dealing with the war-criminal past, the modernisation of the country, the growth of democracy and the revitalisation of independent institutions, the introduction of the rule of law and a legal state, Serbia’s integration into the EU.

The rule of Aleksandar Vučić, current Prime Minister of Serbia, may be the most illustrative result of this process. Like other political protagonists before him, he conveniently uses Đinđić every 12th March for self-promotion and to raise support for policies that have nothing to do with Đinđić’s. Vučić’s entire political history, in which he requested that the street that bears the name of Zoran Đinđić should be replaced by that of the genocidal war criminal Ratko Mladić, says enough about the depravity of the present moment, a point at which the “political will” to honestly and fairly resolve the question of the political background now depends on him.

It is important to say that the public memory of Đinđić is fading in Serbia, and with it the already paltry efforts to discover who was behind his assassination. It should not come as a surprise that if initiatives to build a monument in Đinđić’s honour in Belgrade succeed, if some schools are named after him and the like, the responsibility of those who inspired and ordered his assassination finally becomes cemented and avoided. The last twelve years have passed in the successful preparation of the ground for this, in spite of available and judicially proven facts, and the honourable efforts of individuals, journalists and Đinđić’s friends and sympathisers who, in the struggle for the truth about his assassination, were bound to lose in the face of far more powerful opponents in political life and the media.

The hope remains that in the process of European integration, clarification of the political background to the assassination will become a condition of Serbia’s progress towards EU membership. Like many other aspects of life and politics in Serbia, this too will depend not on our negligible abilities to face up to this crime as a community, but on external pressure. This is sad and distressing, and the only more depressing thing is to know that it it is the only chance for the responsibility of those who organised and supported the assassination ever to be investigated.