Serbia's flamboyant folk music queen Svetlana Raznatovic, better known as Ceca, pleaded guilty to embezzling millions in exchange for a lenient sentence, prosecutors said Tuesday, bringing to an end a legal soap opera that has transfixed the country.
One of the Balkans' most popular singers, the diva famous for her flashy "turbo-folk" music, plunging necklines and marriage to one of the country's most notorious warlords struck a plea bargain with state prosecutors by pleading guilty in a sale of soccer players from her late husband's club. In return, she will spend one year under house arrest and pay a euro1.5 million ($2.2 million) fine, the largest ever imposed in Serbia.
Liberal groups immediately criticized the deal as scandalous, saying the ruling raised questions about the judiciary's credibility and suggested the star was above the law.
The star was charged with embezzling about euro4 million ($5.8 million) during player sales to foreign clubs and faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted. A Belgrade court still has to formally approve the plea bargain.
The case has been closely watched in the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans because it involves the region's biggest folk music star, whose "turbo folk" is a mixture of traditional Balkan folk music and contemporary electronic beats.
The star was married to Zeljko Raznatovic, known as Arkan, whose troops allegedly killed non-Serbs and pillaged their homes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Arkan was gunned down in a Belgrade hotel in 2000, but Ceca continued to manage his soccer club while allegedly also maintaining connections with Serbian crime bosses and former paramilitary leaders.
Ceca has for years evaded legal prosecution thanks to the support of current and former Serbian political leaders who consider her untouchable because of her huge popularity.
Prosecution spokesman Tomo Zoric defended the bargain, saying the fine will be the largest ever paid in Serbia.
"We are talking about cash, not real estate, which will benefit all the Serbs and will be used for (building) hospitals and schools," Zoric said.
Prosecutors said she illegally profited from the sale of 10 players to foreign clubs between 2000 and 2003 _ the most prolific being Nikola Lazetic, who played for Turkish side Fenerbahce, Torino and Siena in Italy's Serie A league, and Red Star Belgrade.
They said she also faced charges of illegal possession of 11 handguns at her Belgrade home.
Ceca was arrested and briefly jailed in 2003 in connection with the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. Police found a huge cache of weapons in her home in the upscale Belgrade Dedinje district.