Three years after the assassination of Kosovo Serb opposition party leader Oliver Ivanovic, the still-unsolved murder case is plagued by claims of political interference, obstruction of investigators, concealment of evidence and judicial incompetence.
By Sasa Dragojlo and Perparim Isufi
Three years ago, on January 16, when unknown perpetrators fired six bullets into the body of Kosovo Serb opposition party leader Oliver Ivanovic in front of his office in the town of Mitrovica, people in Serbia and Kosovo were stunned, while Western diplomats feared that the murder of another politician in the Balkans could end the fragile dialogue to normalise relations between Belgrade and Pristina.
The murder of Ivanovic, the leader of the Freedom, Democracy, Justice party, who was known as a moderate Kosovo Serb politician, cast a dark shadow in Serbia, reminding many of the 2003 assassination of Zoran Djindjic, who was Serbia’s first prime minister after the overthrow of authoritarian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
The assassination appeared to be a professional hit and political leaders in Belgrade and Pristina promised to solve the case as soon as possible, while also using it as an opportunity to take rhetorical potshots at each other.
In July 2018, Kosovo’s then president, Hashim Thaci, promised “concrete results that that will cause many headaches, both in Kosovo and in Belgrade”. A few days later, Thaci’s Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic claimed that Belgrade had “operational knowledge” about the case and even named several ethnic Albanians as potential suspects.
However, three years after Ivanovic’s death, the case is far from solved. Belgrade is keeping its investigation secret and has not been cooperating with Pristina, as Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo as an independent state or work with its police or judiciary.
Meanwhile Pristina has indicted six suspects, all of them Serbs, but there has not yet been a trial hearing at which evidence has been presented or witnesses heard.
The indictment itself does not name the alleged shooter or the person who ordered the assassination. Unusually, it has also been amended three times by the prosecution, which has caused legal experts to raise doubts about its validity and whether the charges can be proved in court.
The key suspects in the case, who the indictment claims led an organised criminal group that was responsible for killing Ivanovic, are two controversial Serbian businessmen who have long been suspected of criminal activities by Serbia’s security services – Milan Radoicic and Zvonko Veselinovic.
However, Radoicic and Veselinovic are both in Belgrade and out of the reach of the Kosovo authorities, and are not among the six people who have been charged because Kosovo law does not allow indictments if those who are accused will not appear in court.
Some observers believe that the case has become stuck in limbo for political reasons.
“After three years, the investigation has become lost in a labyrinth of political interests and various deals between politicians and criminals. And today, instead of evidence, we have assumptions, instead of an investigation, we have political manoeuvring, instead of results, we have new accusations, instead of shedding light on crimes, we are forgetting about them,” Milivoje Mihajlovic, a Belgrade-based journalist who was born and worked for years in Kosovo, told BIRN.
Syle Hoxha, a prosecutor who used to work on the case in Pristina, said that when he was involved, there was a lack of cooperation from Serbia and that the EU’s office in Kosovo did not put enough pressure on Belgrade to help.
“We insisted [on cooperation] through the EU office, but there was no serious and proper cooperation. Serbia is hiding evidence. Serbia has wiretaps and has refused to hand them over. All they have given us is some phone numbers. We do not have access to the wiretaps of Serbian mobile providers,” Hoxha told BIRN.
The case in Serbia is still in the pre-investigation phase, the Prosecutor’s Office for Organised Crime told BIRN.
Surveillance video and phone evidence held back
In December 2019, after almost two years of investigating, 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.
However, the indictment charging has since been amended three times after appeals from defence counsels, and the latest version has not even been made public yet. It is known to mention two more unnamed suspects but no new information about the crime. The charges have yet to be confirmed by a judge.
So far, only one preparatory hearing has been held, in February 2020, while others have been postponed for variety of reasons: lack of translation into the Serbian language, the coronavirus pandemic, and unexplained “technical issues”.
The six people charged so far are Nedeljko Spasojevic, Dragisa Markovic, Zarko Jovanovic, Rade Basara, Marko Rosic and Silvana Arsovic.
Spasojevic, Markovic, Jovanovic and Basara were all Kosovo police officers before they were arrested. Dragisa Markovic and Zarko Jovanovic were first on the crime scene and have been accused of tampering with evidence. Jovanovic allegedly put one of the shell casings in his pocket, while Dragisa Markovic called someone from the Serbian Interior Ministry from the scene, but it is unknown who he called because, as stated in the indictment, Serbian state-owned mobile network provider Srbija Telekom did not provide that information.
Silvana Arsovic was Ivanovic’s political party’s administrator. She is accused, as the only person present in Ivanovic’s political party’s office in Mitrovica when he was shot dead outside the building, of turning off the power so the closed-circuit television cameras did not work when he was murdered.
The question of CCTV cameras in the Serb-populated north of the divided town of Mitrovica, where Ivanovic’s office was, is another issue that has hampered the investigation, since hundreds of cameras have been installed in Mitrovica and its outskirts by the Belgrade authorities, but they will not hand over the footage to Kosovo’s investigators.
According to an unnamed witness, the accused police 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.
Mahmut Halimi, the defence lawyer for suspect Marko Rosic, told BIRN that 95 per cent of the evidence is in Serbia, making a proper investigation impossible.
“I think that the third indictment is even weaker [than the previous versions]. The defendants are not accused of murder. They are accused of helping the murder in different ways,” Halimi said.
“We are in a very serious situation which mostly damages Kosovo’s judicial and prosecutorial system,” he added.
Jovana Filipovic, the defence lawyer for suspect Silvana Arsovic, also questioned the Kosovo prosecution’s competence.
“In this case, the investigation was done poorly and the information was collected unprofessionally. When things go wrong from the day of the murder, it could not have been expected to turn out well, but despite that I did not expect so much obstruction and abuse of the law,” Filipovic told BIRN.
Politically-connected suspects at large in Serbia
The prosecution has not yet published any evidence against the two men accused of heading the organised criminal group responsible for Ivanovic’s death, Serbian businessmen Milan Radoicic and Zvonko Veselinovic.
However, not long before his death, Ivanovic claimed in an interview with BIRN that Radoicic was the key figure and real power-holder in the Serb-majority north of Kosovo, although at that time Radoicic was not involved in politics.
Radoicic and Veselinovic were under investigation by the Serbian police and state intelligence agency, BIA, which suspected them of smuggling drugs, weapons and oil, as well as money-laundering and loan sharking, investigative website KRIK revealed.
Veselinovic and Radoicic cooperated with Kosovo Albanian criminals, according to BIA reports obtained by KRIK. However, the Serbian authorities never pressed charges.
Like the murdered Ivanovic, Veselinovic is a former ‘bridge-watcher’ – one of the Serbs who monitored the bridge over the Ibar river that divides the Serb and Kosovo Albanian communities in the town of Mitrovica. The ‘bridge-watchers’ were accused of involvement in ethnic violence in 2011.
Veselinovic was also mentioned in 2001 in an internal Serbian police document called the ‘White Book of Organised Crime’, which alleged he was the organiser of a group involved in aggravated theft, the stealing of motor vehicles, extortion and forgery of documents in Mitrovica. He was once tried for heroin trafficking, but was acquitted.
Radoicic was accused of kidnapping a Macedonian businessman in 2009. The abducted man suddenly changed his statement on the last day of the trial, causing Radoicic to be acquitted, according to KRIK.
Both of them are also have high-profile political ties in both Serbia and Kosovo. In Serbia, they have numerous construction companies working on many state-backed projects.
In 2019, BIRN published photographs of Radoicic and Veselinovic with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s best man Nikola Petrovic, and of Veselinovic with Vucic’s brother Andrej at the ruling Serbian Progressive Party’s premises.
Kosovo news website Gazeta Express also published a photo in 2017 of Kosovo’s then Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj sitting with Radoicic in a restaurant in Pristina.
Two years later, Haradinaj revealed that he had cooperated with Radoicic and that he went with him to visit the then president of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, who talked with Radoicic for two hours.
KRIK also published photos of Radoicic on a yacht in Montenegro with Bexhet Pacolli, a Kosovo businessman and former foreign minister.
Radoicic became the vice-president of Srpska Lista, the main Kosovo Serb political party which is backed by Belgrade, in July 2018, after Ivanovic’s murder.
In November 2018, Kosovo police special forces tried to arrest Radoicic, but did not find him at home in Mitrovica. Instead, they said they found 75 grammes of cocaine.
Radoicic has denied any wrongdoing, and officials from Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party 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 Vucic insisted at a press conference in July 2019.
Vucic even said that Radoicic had passed a polygraph test.
Genc Nimoni, a legal expert and manager of the rule-of-law programme at Pristina-based Anti-Corruption NGO Cohu, told BIRN that the judiciary must determine whether or not Radoicic and Veselinovic were involved in the murder.
Until then, the entire case has reached a dead-end because “two main figures in the indictment continue to be unreachable for the Kosovo judiciary for political and judicial reasons”.
“The progress of such proceedings also depends on international judicial cooperation, in this case between Kosovo and Serbia, and taking into consideration that Kosovo – in this case its Ministry of Justice – has no cooperation with its Serbian counterpart, this case will continue to face obstacles,” Nimoni added.
Motives for murder remain murky
Many have claimed that the murder of Ivanovic was clearly a politically-motivated assassination, but the investigation has not yet turned up any coherent motive for his killing.
At the time of his death, Ivanovic was being retried for ordering the murder of Kosovo Albanians during the war in 1999, which he denied. However, in the post-war period, he had evolved into a political moderate who advocated coexistence between Kosovo’s Serb minority and ethnic Albanian majority, and had become critical of the Serbian government.
Ivanovic had been in dispute with the ruling Progressive Party in Belgrade and with the party it champions in Kosovo, Srpska Lista, for several years.
In the years before his murder, Ivanovic’s car and party offices were set on fire, and his apartment was broken into. His best man, Dimitrije Janicijevic, who was also an MP in North Mitrovica, was murdered in 2014 on the same date as Ivanovic.
At local elections in Kosovo in 2017, several months before his assassination, Ivanovic was harshly targeted in a media campaign by the Belgrade-backed Srpska Lista party, but also by Serbian state officials like Marko Djuric, the director of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo at the time, who said that a vote for Ivanovic was a “vote for breaking up Serbian unity in Kosovo”.
After the murder, Belgrade and Pristina traded accusations about the other side’s alleged lack of cooperation in the investigation, but over the past year, both sides have been making less noise about the case.
Nebojsa Vlajic, who was Ivanovic’s lawyer and friend, said that he believes that both Belgrade and Pristina know more about what happened, but are concealing the information.
“I am not sure who has a direct interest in that, but it’s clear they are not telling us everything,” Vlajic told BIRN.
“Belgrade did not make a single thing public, while Pristina has created an indictment which I doubt that even the person who wrote it believes in,” he said.