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Special Report: Police Torture Case Divides Serbia

Arrest of former police chief fuels speculation that Serbian government is purging supporters of assassinated prime minister Zoran Djindjic.
By Daniel Sunter

The arrest of a former police chief charged with the torture of four murder suspects has reopened a row about whether the Serbian government is taking political reprisals against former allies of assassinated prime minister Zoran Djindjic.


Supporters of the late premier claim the arrest of Milan Obradovic – who ran the Belgrade police under the Djindjic government – is part of a witch-hunt conducted against Djindjic’s former aides, especially those who took part in a controversial police dragnet codenamed Operation Sabre in 2003.


Allies of the current administration insist the move has nothing to do with Operation Sabre, and is merely part of a campaign to clean up the Serbian police force.


Obradovic and Milorad Bracanovic, former deputy head of the secret service, are under investigation for their role in the alleged torture by police of members of the so-called Maka group, who were arrested for the 2002 murder of police general Bosko Buha.


Obradovic is alleged to have been responsible for the police operation by virtue of his senior position.


Obradovic was a trusted figure in the Djindjic government, which appointed him Belgrade police chief in 2001. After Djindjic's killing, he was promoted to the rank of police general for his role in Operation Sabre.


Conducted after Djindjic's assassination in 2003, Sabre was aimed at crushing the phenomenon of organised crime in Serbia, which was blamed for the prime minister’s death. But those arrested included opponents of the Djindjic government, and in some cases human rights were clearly violated.


Bracanovic became deputy head of the Serbian security service after the Red Berets, a Special Operations Unit, revolted in November 2001. The man who had been in de facto command of the unit up to that point - Milorad Ulemek, also known as "Legija" – is now in jail as one of the main suspects in the Djindjic murder case.


Bracanovic is also under investigation for his alleged involvement in the 2000 murder of Serbia's former president Ivan Stambolic, as well as an alleged attempt to assassinate Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Party, SPO, the same year.


After Buha's murder on June 10, 2002, police under Obradovic were entrusted with solving the crime, while Bracanovic was put in charge of a team that wiretapped telephone conversations.


A three-month search resulted in the arrest of the so-called Maka group, comprising Nebojsa Maljkovic, Vladimir Jaksic, Dragan Ilic and Dragan Malesevic.


The four men were later acquitted, due to a lack of evidence, by a specialist court set up to deal with organised crime. The verdict is currently under review by Serbia’s supreme court, which is expected to issue a ruling shortly.


Following their acquittal, the Maka four – supported by a report from the interior ministry's General Inspector's Office and evidence gathered by the Anti-Organised Crime Police Department, UPBOK – claimed police under Obradovic had forced them to confess to involvement in Buha's killing.


They said they were tortured in the presence of police officials, members of the Djindjic government, Legija and members of the latter’s underground “Zemun” gang.


According to the interior ministry report, at one point during his detention Ilic briefly removed a plastic hood placed over his head to catch sight of Cedomir Jovanovic, who was deputy prime minister at the time. He is also said to have spotted Obradovic and Zemun gang leader Dusan Spasojevic, who was later killed during a shootout when police tried to arrest him as part of Operation Sabre.


One of the four arrested men, Malesevic, died of a heart attack during his interrogation. And doctors from the Belgrade Emergency Centre and prison hospital have confirmed that both Ilic and Maljkovic suffered bodily injuries.


A CLEAN-UP OF THE POLICE – OR AN POLITICAL VENDETTA?


The allegations of Obradovic’s involvement in torturing suspects have brought to a head a longstanding controversy in Serbia over recent drastic changes in the ranks of the police force.


After Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, took power in 2004, it named a senior DSS official, Dragan Jocic, as interior minister in place of Dusan Mihajlovic, who was a key figure in the Djindjic-led Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS.


After Jocic's arrival, there followed a thorough reshuffle in the police and the secret service, now known as the Security Information Agency, BIA.


"The idea was to get rid of all personnel close to the former government," one police source told IWPR. "The purge was executed from top to bottom. Some people had to go for political reasons while others were just incompetent or corrupt." Rade Bulatovic, Kostunica's national security adviser from November 2000 to March 2003, when he was Yugoslav president, was made head of the BIA.


Bulatovic was one of the many Kostunica allies arrested under Operation Sabre, along with Aco Tomic, head of the army's security department.


The then government claimed Bulatovic and Tomic had held secret meetings with Spasojevic and Legija and were part of the conspiracy to kill Djindjic. But they were later released and no charges were ever pressed against them.


Since Kostunica took power, 18 of Serbia's 27 local police chiefs and 15 department heads have been sacked. All were close to Djindjic's government and all took part in Operation Sabre.


The sweeping changes in the police leadership have lowered morale among Serbian officers and left many reluctant to accept promotion. "Taking up such posts means almost certain removal when another party comes to power," a police source told IWPR. "Constant political interference is undermining the reform of the police as well as its overall stability."


Among other security officials who lost their posts under Kostunica are Sreten Lukic, head of the public security department, who has since been indicted by the Hague tribunal for war crimes in Kosovo. Besides Obradovic, who was removed in March 2004, other casualties included Boro Banjac, head of UBPOK, and Gendarmerie chief Goran Radosavljevic, also known as "Guri".


Mile Novakovic, head of the police force’s criminal investigations department, was transferred to the police office that deals with foreigners during their time in Serbia, while Belgrade's assistant police chief, Branko Mozgon, was re-assigned to the fire brigade.


The official reason given for Obradovic losing his job was that his police force responded poorly to unrest in Belgrade, including the torching of a mosque, following an outbreak of anti-Serb violence in Kosovo in March last year.


But some say this was just a cover.


"That was an excuse for Obradovic's dismissal," one policeman told IWPR. "The entire government were responsible for the police's inadequate response."


In Serbia's fiercely divided political environment, one camp believes the Obradovic case is really just another example of an ongoing witch-hunt of Djindjic's allies.


The other faction maintains the trial of former police officials is a necessary process, which among other things will help to shed some light on whether there were ties between the former government and the mafia.


Members of the latter camp predict more figures from the former police hierarchy, and even senior DOS officials, will face investigation.


Two names in particular, those of former deputy prime minister Jovanovic and Nenad Milic, a former deputy interior minister, are expected to figure among those called in for questioning.


Jovanovic and Milic have condemned what they call a political vendetta and have denied suspects were tortured with their knowledge or consent.


Milic suggested that the investigation into the Maka group's treatment in custody was mainly aimed at establishing a link between Djindjic and Legija – apparently with the intention of discrediting the late prime minister.


Jovanovic has accused Kostunica, Tomic, Bulatovic, Jocic and Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic of masterminding the torture investigation.


His lawyer, Radivoj Paunovic, told IWPR that the police report incriminating Obradovic, Bracanovic and the others was launched purposely “to draw… Jovanovic into the process one way or another".


Former interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic agreed, saying the arrest marked a "continued reprisal against the late Djindjic and his cadres".


"The authorities are doing this to divert public attention from social and economic problems and from their incompetence in dealing with the tidal wave of crime," he added.


Obradovic has claimed from prison that he was framed by Vladimir Bozovic, the interior ministry's inspector general, with the support of the current police minister, Jocic.


Bozovic naturally dismisses claims of political partisanship, saying the case has been brought only after dozens of witnesses were heard, including key evidence from police clerks and doctors.


Analysts also point out that there is clear medical evidence that the Maka group were tortured, though it is less clear who was responsible for the abuse and why Legija and Spasojevic would have been involved in the investigation.


One reason why leaders of the Zemun gang may have been present at the police interrogation of the Maka group has been suggested by Spasojevic’s security chief Zoran Vukojevic, known as "Vuk".


After he was arrested in Operation Sabre in March 2003, Vukojevic testified that Buha’s murderer was in fact Sretko Kalinic, a Zemun gang member who is still at large. Vukojevic said the Zemun gang had planted the blame for Buha's assassination on their Maka group rivals with the help of police inspector Slobodan Pazin.


A TEST FOR THE SERBIAN COURTS


While the judiciary tries to establish the responsibility of Obradovic and other arrested police officials for the alleged torture of the Maka Group, it remains to be seen whether the complaints of political interference in the process will come to anything.


The feud between Djindjic's Democratic Party, DS, and the DSS has prompted fears that the infighting may impact on the legal process, with the courts feeling pressured to produce a verdict leading one way or the other.


But officials in the judiciary insist they will not be swayed by political considerations.


An official close to the prosecutor in the special court for organised crime told IWPR that care has been taken to proceed with the case in accordance with the rules, allowing the initial trial in the special court to wind up properly before getting separate proceedings underway through the Belgrade district prosecutor’s office.


Another senior judicial official from the prosecution said the process of gathering evidence on police torture had been strictly supervised from day one.


This source rejected claims by Jovanovic and Milic that the prosecution had launched the investigation solely on the basis of findings by the General Inspector's Office of the interior ministry, headed by Bozovic.


"The prosecutor's office kept demanding fresh and more solid evidence from the UPBOK," the source said. "It decided to start an investigation only after assessing that it had strong facts and a strong case."


A third source, from the district prosecutor's office, also denied suggestions that the torture investigations were launched solely on the basis of statements from such questionable sources as the Maka group members suspected of Buha's murder, or from others implicated in the assassination of Djindjic.


"The UPBOK reached witnesses in and outside the police who either witnessed these events [the torture] or had sound knowledge about them," this source said.


"These people decided to speak out, as they could no longer remain silent. The only question is if they will have the courage to repeat it when they testify, as witnesses often don't repeat to the court what they told the police.


"First it needs to be established whether torture took place and whether some persons illegitimately took part in police work.


"If the court and prosecution come up with hard evidence on this, the process is in no danger of suffering from political interference."


Dobrivoje Radovanovic, director of the Institute for Criminological and Social research, said he was also sceptical of speculation that the Obradovic case is politically motivated.


"There are serious reasons to believe suspects have been tortured," he said. "The politically-fashioned defence arguments seem to me more like running for cover and avoiding justice."


Radovanovic said he supported the prosecution's work so far. "All credit to the prosecutors, as they have done a good job and haven't paid much attention to political pressure from either side," he said.


"They are doing their job, which is establishing whether there is enough evidence to press charges."


Moma Ilic is a reporter with the daily Belgrade newspaper Blic. Daniel Sunter is an IWPR contributor. Pedja Obradovic is a reporter for Belgrade radio station B92.