Alleged Spies on Trial in Yugoslavia
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Five men that President Slobodoan Milosevic says were mercenaries hired by France to kill him went on trial Tuesday, charged with espionage and murder.
Milosevic’s government arrested the group, known as Spider, in November amid reports linking it to subversive activities throughout Yugoslavia and abroad.
The start of the trial was accompanied by a complete media blackout with reporters banned from the district court building in Belgrade. According to the private Beta news agency, a deputy prosecutor trying the case, Nebojsa Maras, had requested the blackout for ``security reasons.″
Maras told Beta that ``several members of the Yugoslav state security″ would testify and that top secret documents would be introduced as evidence.
If convicted, the men face up to 20 years in prison.
Senior government officials have claimed that Spider committed terrorist acts, abductions and assassinations under the instruction of the French intelligence service, something France has vehemently denied.
The state-run Politika daily reported in May that charges were officially raised against the five-man group on two counts: espionage and the killing of two unidentified Kosovo Albanians.
Yugoslavia’s information minister, Goran Matic, also claimed that the group conspired to assassinate Milosevic, though the formal charges made no mention of any plot to kill the president.
Matic further implicated the group in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims, as well as in a massacre of 2,000 people during the 1997 war in Zaire.
Authorities here have sought to portray Milosevic’s regime _ isolated and shunned by Western nations following the Kosovo war last year _ as the victim of a world conspiracy.
Spider’s activities would fall in with a master plan to ``destroy Serbia,″ Milosevic’s powerbase. Western intelligence agencies and mercenaries have also been blamed for a series of gangland-style killings of prominent figures.
Last year, the five suspects allegedly joined the Yugoslav army to fight in Kosovo after the start of NATO’s 78-day air war. The government said the men intended to ``commit criminal acts.″
The group’s leader, Jugoslav Petrusic, 38, and the rest of the men have denied the charges, saying they fought in Kosovo out of ``patriotism.″
Petrusic, also known as Dominique, a dual Yugoslav-French national, allegedly acted under orders from French intelligence. He claims he worked for the French under orders from Yugoslav secret service.
Aside from Petrusic and two other Yugoslav citizens, the group includes two Serbs from neighboring Bosnia. One of them, Branko Vlac, 45, is reportedly indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, for running a prison camp.
Nikola Vukasovic, a Belgrade lawyer for one of the accused, told The Associated Press that the defense team had requested that the judge and prosecutors be replaced because they had allegedly withheld evidence from the defense.
``Catastrophic violations of the rule of law are taking place,″ Vukasovic said, claiming Matic’s statements on Spider’s alleged subversive activities represented a ``verdict before the trial had even begun.″
``We shall try to ban politics from the courtroom,″ Vukasovic concluded. The lawyers also planned to ask that a military court take over, since the accused are charged with espionage during last year’s state of war.