Serbia: 19 Years of collecting, hiding and losing evidence

Over a decade has passed since the death of Serbian journalists Dada Vujasinović, Slavko Ćuruvija and Milan Pantić. Ever since the fall of the regime of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, successive Serbian governments have promised to make these cases a priority. To date, no one has been charged.

Dada Vujasinović (B92)
Dada Vujasinović (B92)

Vujasinović, a magazine reporter who covered the 1990s Balkan conflicts and criminal activity in Serbia, was found dead in her Belgrade apartment on April 9, 1994. For many years, Serbian authorities insisted that the young journalist had committed suicide. Only after pressure from civil society did officials in January 2009 deem her death a murder.

Ćuruvija was gunned down on April 11, 1999. In the six months prior to his death, the journalist’s relationship with the Milošević regime deteriorated. Just days before he was shot, Mirjana Marković, the president’s wife, branded Ćuruvija "state enemy Number One".

Pantić, a correspondent for the Belgrade daily Večernje novosti, died on June 11, 2001, at the entrance to his apartment building in the central city of Jagodina. Pantić was killed by a heavy blow to the back of his head with a blunt object. Before he moved to the Večernje novosti branch office, Pantić worked in Jagodina radio and publishing company Novi Put. Family members said that Pantić received telephone threats prior to the attack concerning articles he had written on crime and corruption.

In 2011, the independent Belgrade station Radio B92 reported, "Former Interior Minister Dragan Jočić said in March 2005 that ‘Milan Pantić was not supposed to be killed but only intimidated, but that he was killed by mistake made by those who had been sent to scare him.’"

In an interview with IPI, Veran Matić, co-founder and news editor of B92, highlights Serbia’s failure so far to bring the perpetrators of crimes against journalists to justice.

IPI: The murders of Dada Vujasinović, Slavko Ćuruvija and Milan Pantić, remain unsolved today. Who, in your opinion, is to be held responsible for the failure to bring perpetrators to justice?

VM: As these are political killings, then the most responsible for not resolving them are politicians. The lack of political will, followed by the fact that this is a very sensitive issue and that it brings along a range of possible implications.

I believe that major breakthroughs were not accomplished due to the fact that there were no lustration in the police and the Security Information Agency [intelligence agency], and that large numbers of people were witnesses - or participants - and they still work in the intelligence agency. Immediately after the changes, lots of documents were burned. Obviously, lots of dossiers were removed, while those old members of the top of security information agency had obviously used those dossiers to remain at large, meaning that this and every other political murder hasn’t been revealed. Privately-owned dossiers had a major role, which is apparent from the example I had already [noted] where the former chief of the intelligence agency warns the present authorities that with revealing the dossiers, they would bring Serbia to its knees on the international level.

IPI: Why have the perpetrators not been brought to justice? Where has the justice system failed?

VM: The justice system, although declaratively independent, is very much dependent on the politics and politicians. This hugely influenced the behaviour of both prosecutors and judges. Even now it is very hard to make the prosecutors more engaged, more pro-active, to do their jobs with great enthusiasm while investigating the murders from the past … but also for revealing who are those who are still in the ruling institutions that should deal with the protection of justice.

IPI: Do you have reason to doubt the quality of police investigations into these deaths? If yes, what are your concerns?

VM: The police in Serbia are also in the process of turbulent reforms. There are lots of affairs within the police department, including clashes of certain clans, but political parties had great impact on this. The president of one party is minister of interior for the second consecutive mandate. Today, he is also prime minister [Ivica Dačić]. In the Milosevic’s regime, he was highly ranked politician from his party. Due to all those joint titles, we are under impression that political pressure on the police is huge. It is always a quite intense situation between the ministry and Police Directorate. The issue of determining priorities and focus is also very influential in those investigations. There is great need for professionalism, modernisation and training of the police and investigators.

Cleaning police lines from the old compromised personnel is very important as their impact on obstructions and blockades of the investigations - and often contact with the potential perpetrators - is fatal for the efficient workings of the police.

IPI: Have any other organisations carried out investigations into Dada Vujasinović’s death? If yes, what was the outcome? Was this outcome taken into consideration by the authorities?

VM: The police had requested new expertise [and] it was done thoroughly. This contributed to the story of suicide to be undermined, renaming this case into a murder case. But nothing else was done here, there were no further investigations.

IPI: Which structural or legal reforms of Serbia’s judicial system would be necessary, in order to ensure an end to impunity?

VM: The whole system has to be reformed. The judiciary must really become independent and competent. The significance of the prosecutor is now much bigger than earlier, but still, it seems to me that the reform is impossible to carry out without high-quality training of the prosecutors and making conditions for them to work most efficiently.

IPI: Last year the Serbian deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, committed to the creation of an international commission to investigate journalists’ murders. Has the commission been formed?

VM: The commission that was established on my initiative is the first concrete institutional answer on the campaigns against impunity of the organisers and executors of the murders of journalists.

The commission is independent in its work, and when we are faced with obstruction, we then use the public or coordinator of intelligence services who is responsible for the national security, Vice President of the Serbian Government Aleksandar Vučić.

The commission’s mission is to investigate why not a single murder was resolved, but we have insisted on establishing working groups of the investigators, policemen and members of Security Information Agency who cooperate intensively with the special prosecutor in case of Slavko Ćuruvija, and with regular prosecutor’s office when it comes to the case of Milan Pantić, on revealing murder cases continuously, which was not the case so far.

Practically, all those investigations were carried out in spurts … with huge discontinuations. Now, we do all the work continuously, and we will work until the executioners and the ones who ordered those murders are revealed. The commission supports and assists, in case of need, the work of those working groups. Its headquarters is on the same location as commission’s, so we are introduced with new circumstances on a daily basis.

From time to time, we inform the government and the public about the development in the work of the investigators, of course, without going into details, to prevent the commission’s work from being compromised.

IPI: Has the commission’s work already resulted in any achievement in terms of pursuing justice in attacks against journalists?

VM: It was published these days in the print media that there is convincing evidence on those who ordered the killings of Slavko Ćuruvija, implying that it leads toward the former chief of security service. He reacted very nervously, and threatened state authorities that he will reveal what he had hidden in the dossiers when he had withdrawn from the service, which will bring Serbia to its knees. This threat had appeared in the press, and it speaks in itself of the dynamics of the commission’s work.

Practically, for the first time, all data are gathered at the same place, the data of various services, and they are being analysed on the part of the work groups and members of the commission, respectively.

The commission works extensively. It has meeting sessions at least once in two weeks, but it also has its own premises in the Police Directorate building so that we could gather data from the investigations done so far, which are kept in a police database. Investigative teams that carry out investigations are also located in these premises. The mere fact that, for the first time, the work has been done with determination not to stop until this pays off is a huge progress. Other kinds of progress are mentioned briefly.

In any case, the commission will publish its findings once it rounds up work on single cases, revealing to the public where the investigation faced with obstruction in the past, including publishing the names of those who participated in this. At the same time, they will offer support to the workers’ teams which will get the assignment to correct the injustices and determine the names of the executioners and those who ordered murders, bringing them to justice, by cooperating with prosecutor’s office ….

Another commission in Montenegro will be established modelled after our commission that will also work on investigations of the murder of one journalist, but also in order to investigate the assaults on the journalists, violence against the news desks, etc.

IPI: What were the greatest challenges that the Commission encountered?

VM: In case of Dada Vujasinović, which is the oldest murder case, originated back in 1994, we have lots of problems regarding expertise. Namely, this case was treated as suicide until 2007 … thus closing it for further investigation.

When Dada Vujasinović’s family, after the democratic changes took place, insisted on carrying out a new [investigation], the police stated that it lost [evidence]. Then, the new expert, based on the written reports of the experts that proclaimed suicide as the way of death, had determined that those experts hadn’t done their job properly, finding certain doubts/faults, and since then, this case is regarded as murder case.

However, no investigation had been conveyed, just some of the hearings got repeated as the police was still convinced that it was a suicide.

When we established the Commission, I had requested from the police to make a detailed report on how it happened that the bag with evidence was lost.

Then, the police was determined to search through the whole building, and after few days, they had managed to find this bag. I had asked for it not to be opened, and then I decided to request another super-expert as distrust was evident towards local forensics. … Presently, we await the response of the US FBI and their laboratory and experts. Therefore, we cannot move on the investigation and make the next step until we get the results of super-experts first.

In case of the murder of journalist Milan Pantić who got killed in 2001, the working team works intensively on this case. As it is a journalist who used to work inland, this case was not investigated with such great enthusiasm.

Now we have engaged all potential forces, and there are lots of new findings and new directions of the investigation….

IPI: Do you feel that there is sufficient public awareness about violence against journalists and impunity in Serbia?

VM: Our commission, with the support of Vienna-based OSCE and its High Representative for the Freedom of Media Dunja Mijatović, had prepared a campaign against violence and intimidation of journalists that will be launched in Serbia on the occasion of Impunity Day. Apart from the video spot, we will have in the campaign the book of threats where we will document the texts of threats towards journalists in Serbia, and then worldwide. Our goal is that, upon finishing this book, to hand it over to the UN General-Secretary [Ban Ki-moon] in order to encourage the strengthening of the campaign and commitment of the states to make concrete steps, such as our commission has done, in other countries all over the world.