Twelve convicted in murder of Serb leader Djindjic

(adds Serb PM in paragraph 18-19)

BELGRADE, May 23 (Reuters) - Two former members of a Serbian paramilitary police unit and 10 co-conspirators were found guilty on Wednesday of the assassination of reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic four years ago.

The trial, which ended with the two main accused each being jailed for 40 years, was Serbia's biggest and most controversial since the fall of Slobadan Milosevic in 2000. Two witnesses were murdered and a judge quit after death threats.

But Djindjic supporters say the three-and-a half year trial failed to uncover who ordered the March 12, 2003 assassination.

Former special police commander Milorad "Legija" Ulemek, once a Foreign Legionnaire, and his deputy Zvezdan Jovanovic were convicted of conspiring with fellow paramilitary and underworld figures to carry out the shooting.

"It was all prepared by Ulemek. Jovanovic fired the shots," said judge Nata Mesarevic.

They planned to first kill Djindjic, then other state officials, to create a climate of fear and bring hardliners to power so as to "earn profit, power and influence," she added

Ulemek and Jovanovic half-smiled on hearing the verdict. Their 40-year sentences were the maximum allowed.

Four accomplices were given prison sentences of 35 years, five of 30 years, and one of eight years. Five of the 12 are on the run and were judged in absentia in what local media called Serbia's "trial of the century".

Serbia is still recovering from the loss of Djindjic, fatally wounded by a bullet from Jovanovic's rifle as he got out of his car to enter his office in downtown Belgrade.

His death threw the country into a state of emergency, crippling the pro-Western reform programme that he instigated.

"The executioners have been sentenced," said Vladan Batic, a justice minister under Djindjic. "Now comes the hard part, to find the instigators of this assassination."


Serbia's organised-crime prosecutor said he would appeal to ensure all 12 got the maximum 40 years. Lawyers for the accused said they would appeal for the sentence to be annulled.

Serbian President Boris Tadic, who now leads Djindjic's Democratic Party, was in court for the verdict. A few hundred people gathered outside carrying the party flag and banners demanding the truth about the conspiracy.

"Even 40 years is not enough", said one slogan.

Djindjic's followers booed relatives of the accused as they left the court. Ulemek supporters, many sporting the red rose tattoo of his feared police unit, made obscene gestures in turn.

Most defendants were members of the Zemun mafia gang, and many fought as paramilitaries in the Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo wars backed by the late autocrat Milosevic.

Djindjic, a youthful pro-Western reformer, took power after Milosevic was ousted in October 2000. He was vilified by nationalists as a traitor in 2001 for extraditing the strongman to the Hague war crimes tribunal.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a former ally who turned against Djindjic over the Milosevic extradition, said the murder had been a "very hard blow for Serbia."

"The end of the proceedings, the ruling and the delivery of justice...carries the message that the state and the hand of the law will reach all those who have committed crimes," he said.

The indictment said the defendants killed Djindjic, 50, to bring ultranationalists back to power, to avoid being sent to The Hague, and to halt a crackdown on lucrative organised crime.

But Djindjic's supporters say the roots of the conspiracy go deeper, and prominent politicians have accused each other of knowing more than they let on.

"I believe the people who ordered the murder may be found among the anti-Hague lobby, the (Milosevic-era) tycoons and politicians," Batic said.

additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac, Ljilja Cvekic