A lively start for a new organised-crime court
ASSAULTS are not meant to happen in court. Yet Aleksandra Ivanovic, the wife of a man on trial for murdering Zoran Djindjic, Serbia's prime minister, in 2003, managed one when she hit a prosecution witness on the head with her handbag. He had called her husband “a biological insult”; as she struck him, she shrieked, “it's you that is the biological insult!”
Such scenes might suggest that Serbia's special court for organised crime and war crimes is a joke. Yet to the surprise of many, it has made steady progress in Serbia's war on organised crime. It may even soon win its first case sent back to Serbia by the UN war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. (This week, the tribunal sent a first case back to Bosnia for trial.)
The court was set up just before Djindjic's assassination in March 2003. He was murdered on the eve of unleashing a police operation to crush organised crime. The court was part of that strategy; now one of its first high-profile cases is of the men accused of killing him. So far it has begun 34 organised-crimes trials. Eight have reached a verdict and ten are close to one. Besides the Djindjic case there are several others involving political murders or attempted murders.
In the Djindjic trial the prosecution is trying to show that Milorad “Legija” Ulemek, Ms Ivanovic's husband and former head of the police's notorious special operations unit, organised the death of Djindjic before he could crack down on crime bosses, especially the Zemun Gang. The defence is trying to show that Djindjic and his associates had a suspiciously close relationship with the gang.
Milos Vasic, a Belgrade journalist and author of a best-selling book on the Djindjic killing, says he has been impressed by the court. “Slow but pretty thorough,” is his verdict. Maja Kovacevic Tomic, the court's spokesman, is even happier. She notes that, when Vojislav Kostunica became Serbia's prime minister in March 2004, his government promised to close the court. Now, as it chalks up successes in the war on organised crime, the government has backed off from that threat. So a forum remains in which witnesses are claiming that Mr Kostunica and his allies helped to set the stage for the murder of Djindjic, his arch-rival.
Mr Kostunica may have decided to ignore this because he has his eye on what could prove to be a bigger prize. He has always argued that, if Serbs committed war crimes, they should be tried at home, not in The Hague. There is one war-crimes trial at the special court, of a group accused of taking part in a massacre of Croatian prisoners from Vukovar in 1991.
At the Hague tribunal judges are now examining cases of lesser ranking indictees to see whether they can be tried back home. Last week they began to consider whether the case of three Serbs, alleged to have organised the Vukovar massacre, should be returned to Belgrade. Croatia also wants this trial, because the killings took place on its soil.
If the judges opt for Belgrade Mr Kostunica will take the credit. He will see it as a reward for sending 15 indictees to The Hague since October. More important still, it might give him political cover to do the unthinkable: to order the arrest of the two big fish still at large, General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic (if either is in Serbia). The Hague tribunal has indicted both men on genocide charges.