The Higher Court in Belgrade on Friday acquitted seven former members of the Serbian State Security Service’s Special Operations Unit, JSO of staging an armed mutiny in November 2001.
The verdict all but puts an end to the already slim chances that the political backers of the mutiny – which was a prelude to the murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic two years later by the very same men who led the JSO’s uprising – will ever be investigated for their role in both crimes.
Among the men acquitted were Milorad Ulemek, alias Legija, and Zvezdan Jovanovic, both former leaders of the JSO, who have already been sentenced to 40 years in prison for assassinating Djindjic.
Mutiny and capitulation
|Members of the JSO block a highway near the town of Vrbas in 2001. Photo: EPA/STR.|
The JSO was officially established in 1996, but many of its members had been active since 1991, waging war in Bosnia and Croatia as part of groups that went by many different names, as well as serving in paramilitary units and becoming known for their sadistic acts of cruelty.
JSO members were distinguishable from fighters from other Serb units by their characteristic headgear – a red beret – giving them the unofficial name under which they’re best known among the wider public, the Red Berets.
The majority of these men were never tried for the crimes they allegedly committed in Bosnia, Croatia or Kosovo, where for the first time they fought as the JSO.
In June 2001, Djindjic’s government extradited former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, and then in November introduced a criminal procedure code which allowed the extradition of Yugoslav citizens to the tribunal.
Djindjic’s political opponents, most notably Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and his Democratic Party of Serbia, Vojislav Seselj and Aleksandar Vucic of the Serbian Radical Party, along with many others, opposed the legislation and led a toxic media campaign against Djindjic and cooperation with the ICTY, dubbing it, as Milosevic himself called it, an ‘anti-Serb court’.
In November 2001, as soon as the legislation came into force, JSO members Predrag and Nenad Banovic were extradited to the ICTY. Predrag Banovic pleaded guilty to charges of war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, and was ultimately jailed for eight years; Nenad Banovic however was released from ICTY custody in 2002 after the prosecution dropped the charges for the same war crimes.
Following the Banovic brothers’ arrest and extradition, JSO members who feared further prosecutions at the ICTY organised an armed mutiny in Belgrade in collaboration with leaders of the biggest criminal gang at the time in Serbia, the Zemun Clan.
The JSO mutineers disobeyed their superiors, stopped taking orders and cut off contact with the government and the outside world from November 9 to November 17.
At one point, armed JSO members with 24 Hummer combat vehicles blocked part of the highway that runs through Belgrade.
Their demands were political. Threatening to use force, they said they would not participate in ICTY arrest operations without the passing of new legislation, and demanded the replacement of the interior minister along with head and deputy head of the State Security Service.
At the time, identical political demands were being put forward by then President Vojislav Kostunica and his Democratic Party of Serbia.
Kostunica, who was in charge of the armed forces and was therefore the only one who could have quashed the mutiny, publicly supported it instead of stopping it, comparing it to a “doctors’ strike”.
Lacking forces with which to fight back, Djindjic had no choice but to partially fulfill the JSO’s and Kostunica’s party’s demands and put their allies in senior positions at state security agencies.
The JSO members called off their ‘protest’ as soon as people close to them, Andreja Savic and Milorad Bracanovic, were announced as the new leaders of the Serbian Security Information Agency.
Bracanovic had close connections with JSO leader Legija and the criminal Zemun Clan, whose membership overlapped with the JSO and other leftovers from Milosevic’s apparatus of power.
Meanwhile Kostunica and his party used the JSO mutiny to amplify their own political agenda, as they wanted to achieve same political goals – which boiled down to stopping Djindjic from continuing with the reforms that his government had just started undertaking.
Politics and murder
|Milorad Ulemek, who was convicted of Zoran Djindjic’s assassination, in court in Belgrade. Photo: EPA/SRDJAN SUKI.|
With the aim of starting to combat organised crime, whose top figures were closely linked to the JSO, the Serbian government started preparing a set of laws in 2002 to establish a new Special Court, Special Prosecution and a legal framework for protected witnesses.
In January 2003, the government discovered that Zemun Clan members were getting classified information about its plans to combat organised crime due to constant leaks from the Security Information Agency. This caused Djindjic to replace the leaders of the security services that he was forced to appoint after the mutiny.
At the same time, Djindjic also announced talks about the status of Kosovo, which caused his enemies to further portray him as a traitor, and Yugoslavia ceased to exist, becoming a state union of Serbia and Montenegro, leaving Kostunica without the Yugoslav presidency and his party without political power.
In March 2003, amid this vortex of political events, Djindjic was assassinated by members of Zemun clan and the JSO, who wanted – as the murderers later admitted – to provoke chaos in the country by killing the Prime Minister and installing ‘patriotic forces’ in power.
Immediately following Djindjic’s assassination, his close associates declared a state of emergency, disbanded the unit and launched a police operation that partially cleansed Serbia of criminals and uncovered Djindjic’s assassins and the network that plotted his murder.
During the years that followed, the assassins were tried and convicted. Members of the JSO were found to have conspired to commit the murder with the help of the Zemun Clan, and Milorad Ulemek, alias ‘Legija’, the former commander of the JSO, was found guilty of organising the group that conspired to kill Djindjic.
Zvezdan Jovanovic, who was in active service with the unit at the time of the assassination, was found guilty of firing the shots that killed the Serbian Prime Minister. Both Ulemek and Jovanovic are currently serving 40-year prison sentences.
However, despite its many successes, the operation couldn’t prevent the inevitable – a number of Djindjic’s successors, along with his political enemies, took over the most important political posts in the country soon after his death, turning back the clock and protecting those who supported his murderers.
Questions without answers
|Zoran Djindjic during protests against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. Photo: EPA/SASA STANKOVIC.|
In the years following Djindjic’s murder, his family, friends, some of his associates, the media and the EU have demanded an investigation into political background to the assassination.
The late Srdja Popovic, the legal representative of Djindjic’s family during the trial of his assassins, put forward numerous proposals that would have shed light on this political background, and officially proposed an expansion of the indictment to investigate events surrounding the JSO’s mutiny and those involved in it.
In 2010, Popovic filed a criminal complaint to the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Kostunica and eight other alleged accomplices, accusing them of involvement in the JSO mutiny.
Popovic’s proposals were never seriously considered, although an investigation was launched and resulted in the 2012 indictment for the JSO mutiny – which, however, only charged the same people who had already been tried for the assassination.
In 2014, a letter sent to a letter sent to the European Commission by MEPs Jelko Kacin, Arnaud Danjean, Maria Eleni Koppa and Marije Cornelissen said that Serbia should uncover the political links behind Djindjic’s murder as a precondition for EU membership.
Later same year, the Commission responded by stating that revealing the background to the assassination would not be a direct condition for successful negotiations, but would help Serbia’s progress towards membership.
However, no court has explored the link between the armed mutiny by JSO members in 2001 and Djindjic’s assassination in 2003, despite the fact that both the mutiny and the assassination were conducted by the same people, and with the same political aims – to stop Djindjic’s ‘traitorous’ government from cooperating with the ICTY, stop the fight against organised crime and return political power to ultranationalists who would, among other things, protect those accused of war crimes before the UN tribunal and domestic courts.
The seven JSO members may have been acquitted in the mutiny trial, but at least their guilt has already been established for assassinating Djindjic.
But those who inspired, supported and helped the murderers will remain safe in the shadows, and will probably never face justice for their support for the JSO’s insurgency, which was a cornerstone of the conspiracy to kill Djindjic.
Although the prosecution can lodge an appeal against Friday’s acquittal verdict, the court’s ruling makes it almost certain that those who commissioned and supported Djindjic’s killers and profited politically from his assassination will ever face justice.
Milos Ciric is a Serbian politologist, educator, writer, media and human rights activist. He holds a BA in international relations from University of Belgrade, an MA in Cultural policy from the University of Arts, Belgrade and Lumière University Lyon 2, France, and an MA in Media studies from The New School University, New York.
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.