The murder of Kosovo Serb political party leader Oliver Ivanovic in January 2018 has been followed by two years of mutual recriminations between Pristina and Belgrade, but the background to the killing remains cloaked in mystery.
By Serbeze Haxhiaj, Maja Zivanovic and Ivana Jeremic
Two years after Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic was gunned down outside his party’s office in the ethnically-divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica on January 16, 2018, six people are to be tried for their alleged involvement in his killing.
But many unknowns remain in the case – including the name of the shooter – and the fractious relations between Belgrade and Pristina have further complicated the process of seeking the truth about who was behind the murder and what motivated them to kill Ivanovic.
The fact that Serbia doesn’t recognise its former province Kosovo as independent has complicated the investigation even further.
Meanwhile officials from both countries have also been using the murder in attempts to score points in their day-to-day political quarrels, some of them making wild and unsubstantiated claims about who was behind the shooting of the 64-year-old politician.
Key suspects remain at large
In December 2019, after almost two years of investigation, Kosovo’s Special Prosecution charged six people with participating in or organising a criminal group, misuse of office, assisting in a murder, possession of illegal weapons, disclosure of official secrets and misuse of evidence in relation to the Ivanovic case. The indictment has since been updated, but the latest version has not yet been made public.
The suspects’ trial at Pristina Basic Court’s Special Department was due to open the same month, but the hearing was postponed until February.
The initial indictment also named two prominent Kosovo Serbs, Milan Radoicic and Zvonko Veselinovic, as leaders of the criminal group responsible for the killing.
Neither man has been detained so far. In November 2018, officers of the Kosovo Special Police force, ROSU, entered the house of Radoicic, who is the vice-president of the main, Belgrade-backed Kosovo Serb political party, Srpska Lista, in an attempt to arrest him.
They failed to do so because Radoicic was not at home. In fact, he was already safe in Serbia.
Not long before his death, Ivanovic had described Radoicic, a truck company owner and debt collector, as the key figure and real power-holder in the Serb-majority north of Kosovo. Ivanovic’s Freedom, Democracy, Justice party was in opposition to Srpska Lista.
Soon after the failed raid on Radoicic’s home, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci labelled him the prime suspect in the murder of Ivanovic and said it was Belgrade’s responsibility to take action to detain him.
“The main suspects are in Belgrade. So Belgrade should be cooperative, not sheltering them but handing them over and helping justice to be served. That’s Serbia’s responsibility,” Thaci said.
Radoicic has denied any wrongdoing, and officials from Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party members have been keen to defend him from the accusations.
“Milan Radoicic is not a flower, but he did not in any way participate in the liquidation of the leader of the Freedom, Democracy, Justice citizens’ initiative, Oliver Ivanovic,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic insisted at a press conference in July 2019.
“This has been established through various methods of checking on and monitoring Radoicic,” he added.
In a written statement, Radoicic said that he would not surrender to the Kosovo authorities, but that “at the invitation of my state of Serbia”, he was always ready to make a statement.
Radoicic was then questioned by the Serbian Interior Ministry in Belgrade in November 2019.
The head of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, told media afterwards that Radoicic was given a polygraph test, which showed that he was not guilty of the murder – despite the fact that polygraph tests can’t be used as evidence in Serbian courts, according to the law.
Djuric also alleged that the Kosovo authorities had sought to kill Radoicic during the raid on his house.
“I am deeply convinced that they wanted to remove Radoicic, and if he had been liquidated, he would have forever been blamed as the culprit for that murder,” Djuric said.
In July 2019, Kosovo’s special prosecutor told local media that an international warrant had been issued for Radoicic, although his name is still not listed on Interpol’s website as wanted.
Radoicic and the other fugitive suspect, Zvonko Veselinovic, a controversial businessman who also has links to the Serbian ruling party, remain at liberty in Serbia.
Like the murdered Ivanovic, Veselinovic is a former ‘bridge-watcher’ – one of the Serbs who monitored the bridge that divides Serbs and Kosovo Albanians in the town of Mitrovica, and were accused of involvement in ethnic violence.
At the time of his death, Ivanovic was on trial for retried for ordering the murder of Kosovo Albanians during the war in 1999. However, in the post-war period, he had evolved into a political moderate who advocated coexistence between Kosovo’s Serb minority and Albanian majority, and had become critical of the Belgrade government.
Serbian leader names Kosovo Albanian ‘perpetrator’
In July 2019, Vucic announced that he had an alternative suspect in the Ivanovic case – Florim Ejupi .
“We think we have the name of the killer, the perpetrator. The Albanians do not have it, they have no idea… We are trying to come up with material evidence and make it public,” Vucic said.
Ejupi has previously been acquitted of bombing a bus carrying Serb passengers across the Serbia-Kosovo border in February 2001, an attack in which 12 people died.
Vucic also mentioned another alleged suspect. He asked what Nexhmedin Zekaj, a Kosovo Albanian who Vucic said has since changed his name to Lirim Zekaj, was doing in northern Kosovo at the time of the Ivanovic murder.
However, no proof linking either Ejupi or Zekaj to the Ivanovic killing has since been made public by Belgrade.
Vucic’s statement accusing Ejupi was followed by additional accusations from the head of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, who alleged that Kosovo’s Justice Minister Abelard Tahiri was shielding the murderers.
Djuric described the Kosovo authorities as “co-executors” of Ivanovic. Tahiri responded by accusing Serbian officials of abusing their power by “trying to hide a crime”.
Another point of conflict between Belgrade and Pristina was the role of one of those charged, Kosovo Serb police officer Dragisa Markovic, who was the first responder at the crime scene, according to the indictment of the six suspects on trial.
Kosovo’s Special Prosecution alleged that Markovic revealed information from the Ivanovic murder scene to another police officer in Serbia. During an examination of Markovic’s phone, police determined that three calls were made to a Serbian officer.
However, these three calls were not listed by Serbian mobile phone service provider Telekom Srbija in a report that was passed to the Kosovo prosecutors because Belgrade tried to hide them, the indictment alleges.
Video cameras filmed Markovic giving instructions to the other policeman present at the crime scene, Zarko Jovanovic, who took a spent cartridge and put it in his pocket.
A further dispute centres on the surveillance cameras at Ivanovic’s party headquarters, which were switched off at the time of the murder.
“What happened with the footage gathered from the office of the [party], in front of which Ivanovic was murdered?” Vucic asked in July 2019.
Since then, the Kosovo authorities have charged Ivanovic’s secretary, Silvana Arsovic, claiming that she suspiciously switched the cameras on again after the murder.
According to the indictment, the cameras were not working from January 4 until January 16, when Arsovic was the only person present at the party office.
An anonymous witness in the case has also claimed that some of the Kosovo Serb police officers were operating under the control of Serbia’s Security Intelligence Agency and were in charge of covering up evidence.
According to the witness, the officers controlled video cameras not only near the crime scene, but also along the route taken by the car used by the killers, and concealed the footage from the Pristina authorities.
Belgrade accuses Pristina, and vice versa
Since the murder, Belgrade and Pristina have continued to trade accusations about the other side’s alleged lack of cooperation in the investigation.
Vucic complained in July 2019 that the Pristina authorities did not accept Serbia’s request to participate in the probe.
“Why didn’t the temporary institutions in Pristina accept the request of the Serbian authorities for full-capacity involvement in the investigation into the murder of Ivanovic?” he asked.
Meanwhile Albin Kurti, the leader of Kosovo opposition party Vetevendosje, claimed the murder of Ivanovic was yet another example of Serbia trying to show that it still holds power in Serb-majority northern Kosovo.
“On one hand there’s the explanation that Serbia wants to show – lest anyone in Kosovo thinks otherwise – that the [Serb-dominated] north of Kosovo can never be Kosovo, and that it is a place where not only Serbia rules, but its state security structures rule, because the murder was clearly carried out in a very professional manner,” Kurti told BIRN.
Vucic meanwhile accused Pristina of “hiring a network of [foreign] secret services and their associates so Serbia could be accused of the crime”.
Djuric also said in March 2019 that the Serbian authorities were “increasingly confident that [Kosovo President Hashim] Thaci and [then speaker of parliament Kadri] Veseli are directly behind the murder”.
He did not offer any evidence for his claims.