On 11th April we will mark 17 years since the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija, a renowned Serbian journalist and sharp critic of the Milošević regime. The trial of the four accused former members of the state security services only began in June 2015. To date only slightly more than a quarter of proposed witnesses have been cross-examined, mainly former and current State Security agents, who mostly said to the court “I don’t know”, “I don’t remember”, “I’m not sure” or “I suppose so”
The trial for the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija, the Serbian journalist shot down on 11thApril 1999 on the street in front of his home in central Belgrade, began in June 2015 and has so far lasted for 10 months, with no end in sight. It will certainly last for years. To date the testimonies of 30 witnesses have been heard, with another 64 prosecution witnesses yet to give evidence and around 20 proposed by the defence.
During the rule of the late President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milošević, the state authorities pursued and persecuted the anti-regime orientated Ćuruvija.
At the time, Ćuruvija was ordered by the regime-controlled courts to pay draconian fines that had to be settled within 24 hours, the complete assets of his newspapers were seized, he was branded in the state media and by leading politicians in the country as a traitor and a NATO collaborator who had requested his own country be bombed; he was sentenced to five months imprisonment, bugged and placed under surveillance by the secret service and, finally, murdered.
The final issue of the Dnevni Telgraf (Daily Telegraph), the country’s first private daily newspaper and the then highest circulating print publication in Serbia, was published on the day the NATO bombing began, 24th March 1999. It was then that Ćuruvija convened the final editorial meeting in the Dnevni Telegraf newsroom, at which he told his closest associates that he “will not make a newspaper for the censors” (the start of the bombing saw the official introduction of wartime censorship and then Information Minister Aleksandar Vučić personally approved the content of newspapers and broadcast news programming on a daily basis).
It was also at that time that the publishing of the influential Ćuruvija-owned news magazine Evropljanin (The European) ceased.
HISTORY OF PERSECUTION
Ćuruvija founded the Dnevni Telegraf, the highest circulating of his two publications, in early 1996. From its very inception the daily was a sharp critic of the government and was created in tabloid form, with a large circulation. The undemocratic regime viewed this publication as a major threat. It perceived other independent media in the same way, but it dealt particularly brutally with Ćuruvija and his newspapers.
The Public Information Act, the main weapon of the Milošević regime for dealing with the media, and whose chief target was often Ćuruvija, was the work of the then young Minister of Information, Aleksandar Vučić, who at the time was an embittered extreme nationalist. The investigation was treading water until 2012, when Vučić – now a pro-European politician – came to power.
The Dnevni Telgraf was the most frequent target of Vučić’s notorious Public Information Act. The levels of the fines inflicted on the media company were such that in October 1998 the court confiscated the entire property of the Ćuruvija-owned company that published both of his newspapers
The Dnevni Telgraf was the most frequent target of Vučić’s notorious Public Information Act. The levels of the fines inflicted on the media company were such that in October 1998 the court confiscated the entire property of the Ćuruvija-owned company that published both of his newspapers.
Meanwhile, Ćuruvija had developed personal relations with Mira Marković, the wife of Yugoslav President Milošević, with whom he met, as he himself admitted, three to four times a year.
Ćuruvija explained this contact as being part of a need, as the owner of influential daily newspapers, to communicate directly with all political decision-makers. As he himself confirmed, they had held increasingly fiery discussions about the current political situation.
And an already poor political situation suddenly deteriorated even further in October 1998, when NATO seriously threatened to attack the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The reason was the Kosovo crisis.
Ćuruvija and Marković last met on 20th October 1998, when the shutting down of Ćuruvija’s newspapers had already begun. According to his personal testimony, that conversation had been very unpleasant. On that occasion Ćuruvija personally familiarised Mrs. Marković with an open letter that had been published the previous day and in which he and renowned journalist Aleksandar Tijanić had addressed her husband, Milošević. In the letter they accused him of cultivating fascism and violence in Serbia.
A month after that meeting, Marković publicly accused Ćuruvija of being a traitor and of calling for the country to be bombed, which immediately went on to become a common phrase repeated by politicians and the media. These attacks particularly intensified after Ćuruvija’s presentation before the Helsinki Commission of the US Congress in Washington, where he said, among other things:
“Free press is no longer possible in Serbia. Journalists stand accused or convicted for attempting to overthrow constitutional order and jeopardize the security of the state. Draconian fines have been imposed in the name of the law, depriving journalists of their livelihood and effectively shutting down their publications.
A month ago I was a successful publisher and owner of two influential and popular publications, daily newspaper Dnevni Telegraf and news magazine Evropljanin. I stand before you today as a man whose company has been ruined, whose publishing house assets have been seized and whose publications have been banned by the Slobodan Milošević’s regime…”
At that time, the secret police had already been tapping Ćuruvija’s phone for two months.
Several witnesses who had been called to testify were unable to do so because they did not receive a formal decision exempting them from their responsibility to maintain state secrets. Permission should have been granted to them by the Security Information Agency, the successor of Milosevic’s State Security, where all of the accused were employed
The bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began on 24th March 1999. Ćuruvija immediately returned to Belgrade from Montenegro, the other Yugoslav federal unit that had already begun resisting Milošević, and where he had organised the continuation of the publishing of his newspapers. His family was located in the city, where the bombing had started that same evening.
On 7th April, one of the then pro-government newspapers publishes an article saying that Ćuruvija is a traitor, and that traitors will not be forgiven. The text was read aloud that same evening on the main news bulletins of the state television channels.
It was during that time that the secret police began 24-hour surveillance of Ćuruvija, working in three shifts.
On 11th April Ćuruvija left his home for his regular afternoon walk through downtown Belgrade, in the company of his friend Branka Prpa. They returned just before five o’clock in the afternoon. In the passageway at the entrance to Ćuruvija’s apartment they were approached from behind by two assailants. One of them struck Prpa on the head with butt of a gun. The other simultaneous fired 17 rounds at Ćuruvija, 12 of which ended up embedded in his body. He used the last bullet to shoot him once again in the head from close range.
Immediately after the murder, the pro-democratic public suspected that the government was behind this crime.
However, little was reliably known for a long time regarding a formal investigation.
Doubts about the involvement of state authorities in secret surveillance were confirmed only after the Milošević regime was overthrown in October 2000. That same month, the media in Serbia, in a way that still remains unclear, received the Secret Service dossier about the secret surveillance of Slavko Ćuruvija on the day of his murder.
From that dossier we learn that the chief of the Belgrade Centre of the State Security Service, Milan Radonjić, halted the secret surveillance of Ćuruvija just ten minutes before the murder.
The new democratically-orientated government initially sped up the investigation, but that tempo was lost over time. With constant suggestions of ups and downs in the investigation and announcements from government officials that the case would be solved “soon”, the public lost hope that the truth would ever come to light.
The investigation suddenly came to life only in 2012, with the arrival of the coalition government in which the main role was played by the then Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, now pro-European.
This was the same man who, 14 years earlier, in 1998, had been the information minister when the persecution of Slavko Ćuruvija began.
The Public Information Act, the main weapon of the Milošević regime for dealing with the media, and whose chief target was often Ćuruvija, was the work of the then young Minister of Information, Aleksandar Vučić, who at the time was an embittered extreme nationalist. The investigation was treading water until 2012, when Vučić – now a pro-European politician – came to power
A year later, in 2013, a complete turnaround occurred. Under Vučić’s patronage, a Commission was established to investigate the murder of journalists. Namely, in Serbia there were two other journalists whose cause of death has not been clarified: Dada Vujasinović, who was found dead in 1994, and Milan Pantić, who was murdered in 2003. A new law was also passed according to which the responsibility for the investigation was handed to the prosecutor, and not the court, as had been the case previously.
With the political will to resolve these cases clearly expressed through the work of the Commission, new media interest in these cases obviously contributed to accelerating the investigation and filing an indictment.
Furthermore, in January 2014 Milorad Ulemek, aka Legija, a former State Security officer and commander of its paramilitary Special Operations Unit, who is currently serving a 40-year sentence for the 2003 murder of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, decided to tell the investigating authorities what he knew about the murder. Two former State Security officials, Milan Radonjić and Ratko Romić, who now find themselves in the dock, were arrested a week later.
Radomir Marković, the head of the secret police at the time of the murder, who the prosecution placed as the number one suspect in the indictment, was already in prison. He is serving a 40-year sentence for his involvement in the murder of Milošević’s predecessor as state president, Ivan Stambolić (who was mentioned as a possible election opponent), and the attempted murder of then-opposition leader Vuk Drašković in 1998.
According to the indictment, in early April 1999 Radomir Marković appointed Milan Radonjić as the chief of the Belgrade State Security office, with the clear task of organising political assassinations.
Radonjić organised the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija by agreeing on how the murder would be carried out with Ratko Romić and Miroslav Kurak (who is on the run, assumed to be in Tanzania), provided them with a white VW Golf 3 from the State Security’s fleet and ordered State Security agents to follow Ćuruvija. The Golf vehicle contained an official radio transmitter through which the assassins could track the communications of the surveillance agents.
Ten minutes before the murder, Radonjić ordered the agents to leave. Romić and Kurak then entered the passageway in front of Ćuruvija’s apartment unnoticed. Kurak shot Ćuruvija, while Romić struck Prpa to the head, the prosecution claims.
The trial process for the murder of Slavko Ćuruvija in front of the Special Court for Organised Crime in Belgrade began on 1st June 2015. The Court first heard the accused, then Branka Prpa, the only direct witness to the murder, and Jelena Ćuruvija, Slavko’s daughter. All of the following 25 witnesses were employed by the State Security service at the time of the murder.
The accused both entered a plea of not guilty. The unusual procedures that were confirmed by most witnesses, such as Radonjić’s abrupt order to discontinue the surveillance alarmingly close to the time and place of the murder, were explained as being due to other reasons.
Branka Prpa reiterated her earlier statement that the photo she was shown of Miroslav Kurak did not look to her like the face of the one killer she saw.
Former employees of the department of the secret police responsible for “internal enemies”, which at the time included non-regime journalists, testified that Ćuruvija’s telephone had been tapped for at least six months before the murder.
Two former State Security officers, Stevan Nikčević and Vladimir Nikolić, who now hold senior public functions, insisted that the controversial actions of Milan Radonjić were such that his participation in the murder was the only reasonable explanation.
The last three months of the trial have seen the testimonies of the agents who were following Ćuruvija on the day of the murder. They were questioned about the surveillance operation itself and how it ended, about radio links and the white VW Golf which, according to the indictment, was used by the killers.
They also discussed State Security service procedures and documentation. The whereabouts, or indeed very existence, of many important documents related to the murder remains unknown. After the fall of Milošević a large part of the archives of the State Security service was destroyed. The chief suspect in the unfinished investigation regarding that destruction of documentation is Radomir Marković.
The most commonly used phrases during these testimonies to date have been “I don’t know”, “I don’t remember”, “I’m not sure” or “I suppose so”.
Witnesses often claimed not to remember many details relevant to the indictment, arguing that a lot of time has passed since these events occurred. During those 17 years, almost all of them have been interrogated on multiple occasions in investigations that did not bear fruit until two years ago.
Several witnesses who had been called to testify were unable to do so because they did not receive a formal decision exempting them from their responsibility to maintain state secrets. Permission should have been granted to them by the Security Information Agency, the successor of Milosevic’s State Security, where all of the accused were employed.
The trial’s continuation will include the testimonies of Milorad Ulemek, several of his accomplices in the murder of Prime Minister Đinđić, more State Security officials, the police officers who conducted the investigation into the murder, former heads of the Serbian secret service and ICTY indictees Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović, as well as several journalists.