BELGRADE, Serbia -- Slobodan Milosevic's feared paramilitary commander was found guilty yesterday in the 2003 murder of pro-Western Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, an assassination that shocked the nation and damaged the cause of democratic reform.
Milorad Ulemek, former head of the notorious Red Berets, his deputy and 10 other men were convicted of planning and carrying out the murder of Serbia's first democratically elected prime minister. The killing was a bid to return Milosevic's allies to power and halt Belgrade's cooperation with the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, the court said.
Djindjic became prime minister at a crucial time in Serbian history, elected after he helped topple Milosevic from power in 2000. The charismatic and popular Djindjic, then 50, was killed after he extradited the former Serbian strongman to The Hague, Netherlands, where Milosevic died last year of a heart attack while on trial for crimes against humanity.
Concluding a long and complex prosecution that has both riveted and polarized Serbia, a panel of judges handed stiff jail terms to Ulemek, convicted of masterminding the murder, and his deputy Zvezdan Jovanovic, convicted of pulling the trigger of the sniper's rifle used to shoot Djindjic.
The prime minister was killed March 12, 2003, as he arrived, walking on crutches at the time, at the main government building in downtown Belgrade.
"This was a political murder, a criminal deed aimed against the state," presiding Judge Nata Mesarovic said as she read the verdict to a packed courtroom that included Serbian President Boris Tadic and several people who served as top officials in the Djindjic government.
Djindjic was killed "after democratic changes in Serbia, when most of the citizens believed that the situation in Serbia could be changed and life could be better," the judge said.
Ulemek and Jovanovic were each sentenced to 40 years in prison, the maximum under Serbian law. The other defendants received eight to 35 years. Ulemek smiled slightly, while Jovanovic held a steady smirk. Then, in the middle of the judge's reading, they and their convicted accomplices stood up and walked out of the courtroom.
Later, outside the courthouse, the defendants' families and friends were met by several thousand youthful members of Djindjic's Democratic Party and other pro-democracy activists who booed and hurled shouts of "Killer!"
All defense attorneys said they would appeal the verdicts.
The trial lasted 3 1/2 years and saw the murder of two prosecution witnesses, the resignation of one judge and threats against the current lead judge, as well as a string of technical hurdles placed by the previous conservative government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
The prime minister was re-elected earlier this month after forming a coalition with Djindjic's party.
As important at the proceedings were to Serbia's ability to air political crimes and mete out justice, many Djindjic supporters said they believed the full roster of masterminds behind the murder had not been revealed. Several appeared at the courthouse with signs reading, "It's not over!"
"It is not over until we get full answers to the question of who issued the orders for this killing, who organized it, and why the obstruction" and delays caused by the previous government, said Cedomir Jovanovic, head of the Liberal Democratic Party and an ally of Djindjic.
He said Kostunica should have been required to testify.
The Red Berets, as Milosevic's Unit for Special Operations was known, was an elite and secretive paramilitary squad that terrorized non-Serbs in much of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. After the wars, they metamorphosed into a Mafia-style criminal gang accused of murders and kidnappings for profit, often targeting Milosevic's enemies.
The untangling of the murky web of war crimes and common crimes in the Serbian underworld might be another achievement of this trial, politicians said.
"With this [verdict] we are finally seeing the start of the showdown with organized crime, and the background of that crime," said Dragoljub Micunovic, the founder of Djindjic's party.
Zoran Cirjakovic and Tracy Wilkinson write for the Los Angeles Times.