Serbia Under Pressure Over US Albanians’ Murders
Serbia is being urged to prosecute senior police commanders for the 1999 murder of three Albanian-Americans, as evidence suggests the suspected perpetrators have been known to the authorities for years.
During his official visit to the US this week, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was pressed by US White House officials about why Serbia still hasn’t resolved the 16-year-old murder of three American citizensof Albanian origin who fought alongside the Kosovo Liberation Army during the late 1990s war.
Ahead of Vucic’s visit, Serbian police claimed to have new evidence that could finally bring to justice the killers of the three brothers, Ylli, Agron and Mehmet Bytyqi.
Last week, it was also announced that a new special commission that will be formed to resolve the murder, led by the prominent Serbian editor and journalist Veran Matic.
But the family of the Bytyqi brothers, who were killed at a Serbian police training centre in Petrovo Selo in July 1999 in Serbia, say they have been receiving promises from Serbian institutions for years, but so far without any tangible results.
“Yesterday a commission, today new evidence, what distraction will come tomorrow? Prime Minister Vucic cannot evade his central and active role in preventing a credible investigation,” Praveen Madhiraju, an attorney and pro bono advisor to the Bytyqi family, told BIRN.
Madhiraju said the evidence that his team has gathered, the evidence of the Serbian courts and an FBI investigation into the killings has linked a top special police general, Goran Radosavljevic, also known by the nickname Guri, to the deaths in Petrovo Selo.
Radosavljevic, now retired, is a member of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, and Madhiraju alleges that he remains protected by the Serbian prime minister, who is from the same party.
Despite the evidence against Radosavljevic, Madhiraju said, Serbia has created “a safe place” for him, due to his powerful connections within the party and the police force.
“By continuing to protect Goran ‘Guri’ Radosavljevic and allowing a toxic environment for witnesses to fester, no amount of evidence will be able to overcome the challenges in this case,” Madhiraju alleged.
According to the BIRN’s sources, Serbian military security agency is currently checking Radosavljevic’s whereabouts at the time of the killing, as many witnesses said that he was in Petrovo Selo, despite the fact that he claimed he was on vacation when the murder occurred.
The same sources said that the initial investigation showed that he was receiving calls on special wartime lines related to the murder, but for further legal proceedings, the Serbian prosecution demanded a confirmation that he was present at the time of killing at the police training centre.
Madhiraju said meanwhile that his team’s investigation showed that most of the evidence that police are now allegedly examining already existed before.
The ‘Rock’ of the Kosovo War
Radosavljevic, who now runs several security companies in Belgrade, served with the Serbian police since leaving sports academy. For most of this time, he was in charge of training police units, buthe become famous during the Kosovo war. This is when he got the nickname Guri, which in Albanian means Rock.
In 1998, he was one of the Serbian police commanders who led the attack on the family compound of former Kosovo Liberation Army leader Adem Jashari, when about 40 people were killed, including members of his family, women and children. Although many rights groups classified the attack as a war crime, Radosavljevic claimed Jashari was using his family as a shield.
Radosavljevic also led another controversial attack during the Kosovo war – in January 1999, Serbian police raidedthe Kosovo village of Racak, where 44 people were killed.
The attack triggered the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia as the OSCE considered the victims were civilians, although Radosavljevic and the Serbian interior ministry claimed the action was against ‘terrorists’. Later, the massacre in Racak was part of the indictment against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Radosvljevic was also considered a man to be highly trusted by the Belgrade authorities and during the Kosovo war he also served as an assistant to the state headquarters for Kosovo, which was headed by Sreten Lukic, who was later convicted of war crimes during the conflict.
During 1998 and 1999,Radosavljevic also acted as one of the commanders of Serbia’s special police units, known as the PJP. In 1999, he was appointed as a commander of the special police operations group, known as the OPG.
The units were the best equipped and trained among Yugoslav forces that operated during the war, and in Serbia they are still perceived heroic despite the serious allegations made against them at the UN-backed court in The Hague.
Sandra Orlovic, the director of Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Centre, said many of the PJP and OPG’s crimes remain unpunished, because the documents of the units are still classified as secret.
“The Hague Tribunal determined that some crimes were committed by these units and police formations. It is certain that the documentation is poor…but what is also certain is that those documents exist in police archives,” Orlovic told BIRN.
Several requests to the police from BIRN about the PJP and the wartime activities of the unit were rejected. Police also declined to reveal to BIRN the names of the commanders of the unit, claiming they don’t have this information.
Covering up the crimes
The PJP unit is not only alleged to have actively taken part in some of the Kosovo attacks which were later considered war crimes by international and Serbian courts, but also in the removal of the bodies and in cover-up operations.
In 2001, Radomir Markovic, the former chief of Serbian state security, in a statement given to police, provided details about the advance plan for what he called “clearing up the terrain”, which was agreed at the highest possible level, in former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic’s office, aimed at concealing potential evidence from the Hague Tribunal.
Markovic said that the task was given directly to police generals Dragan Ilic and Vlastimir Djordjevic, and that Radosavljevic also provided “significant assistance” by helping another top Serbian police official in the process of removing corpses of killed Albanians.
“Ilic told me that police colonel Goran Radosavljevic helped him significantly with his men, who helped him directly to implement this task,” said Markovic.
According to numerous witnesses, Radosavljevic was present in spring 1999 when the bodies were brought from Kosovo to the Petrovo Selo police training centre and buried in a nearby pit.
Police driver Bozidar Protic, who transported bodies from Kosovo to several sites in Serbia in April and May 1999, including Petrovo Selo, told the Serbian special court in 2007 that Radosavljevic himself was at the police training centre when a truck full of corpses arrived.
Protic said the Radosavljevic was in a caravan with his daughter next to the training centre entrance.
“I stopped next to him… and showed him the truck parked down the road [with the bodies that were inside] and told Guri what was it about and he said ,‘Don’t worry,’”Protic said.
Another police officer from Petrovo Selo, Radomir Djeric, who was an instructor at the centre and Radosavljevic’s deputy, also told the Serbian court in 2007 that “the boss knew everything” about the bodies.
Djeric said he asked: “‘Guri, are you familiar with this?’ He said yes, all this is known to me… The boss knew what had just arrived there.”
Radosavljevic, however, denied taking part in or being informed about the removal of the bodies.
“I found out about these events and managed to get a clear picture only after a certain time when at an interior ministry meeting I found out that bodies were found, mass graves, and that on top of one of these mass graves, three corpses of American citizens were found,” he told a Serbian court in 2008.
Shot from behind
The three bodies were identified as those of the Bytyqi brothers in 2002, and Radosavljevic was briefly investigated by the Serbian prosecution but never indicted.
The brothers had joined a volunteer branch of the Kosovo Liberation Army called the Atlantic Brigade, which was active during the conflict with Belgrade’s forces in 1999.
Alongside other members of the Atlantic Brigade, who mainly came from the US, the brothers travelled to Kosovo to fight against Serbia. After the July 1999 peace agreement that ended the war, they then agreed to escort several Roma neighbours to Serbia.
But when they strayed over an unmarked boundary line between Serbia and Kosovo near Merdare, they were arrested by Serbian police for illegally entering what was then Yugoslavia.
After serving their sentences, as they were leaving the district prison in the town of Prokuplje in southern Serbia, they were re-arrested, taken to the police training centre in Petrovo Selo, and detained in a warehouse there.
During the evening of July 9, 1999, they were tied up with wire by unknown persons and driven to a garbage disposal pit, where they were executed with shots to the back of the neck.
The fall of Milosevic
Radosavljevic played an important role in the overthrow of Milosevic in October 2000, when he decided not to use police force against protesters who were demonstrating for the resignation of the Yugoslav leader, and chose what turned out to be the winning side.
He became a prominent figure in Serbian police and state institutions – shifting from one of the closest servants of Milosevic’s regime to the one of the police generals of the newly-established democratic government led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
Several months after Milosevic was ousted, Radosavljevic was appointed commander of the special police units and in 2001 he became the first commander of an interior ministry force called the Gendarmerie. He was also commended for his role in leading police forces during a brief conflict with Albanian insurgents in southern Serbia the same year.
Following the assassination of former Prime Minister Djindjic in March 2003, Serbia declared a state of emergency and launched a massive police operation, codenamed Sablja (Sabre). Radosavljevic and his unit had a pivotal role in the operation which saw more than 11,000 people arrested, and he was further promoted for his contribution.
A year later, in May 2004, Radosavljevic was the one who arrested the former leader of Serbia’s special operations unit, Milorad Ulemek, known as Legija, who was later sentenced to 40 years in jail for his role in Djindjic’s assassination.
His arrest might have been the reason for the end of Radosavljevic’s police career a year later, because after Legija surrendered, Radosavljevic took him to the interior ministry instead of to a police station, which was against the law.
While Radosavljevic said he resigned, claiming that he was only following orders the night he arrested Legija, others believe he was retired for political reasons.
After quitting the police in 2005, he started a security business and went abroad to train foreign troops in places like Libya and Afghanistan. Many told BIRN that he left the country and the police at due to his fear that he would be indicted as US pressure over the Bytyqi murders grew.
The first Bytyqi prosecution
The first legalcase connected to the murders was launched in 2006, when the Serbian war crimes prosecution indicted two police officers, Sreten Popovic and Milos Stojanovic, for allegedly transporting the brothers from Prokuplje to Petrovo Selo where they were killed. In 2012, both men were acquitted.
During the trial, Stojanovic and Popovic claimed that they received the order to drive the brothers to Petrovo Selo from Vlastimir Djordjevic, who at the time was Serbia’s assistant interior minister and who was sentenced to 18 years in jail by the Hague Tribunal for wartime crimes in Kosovo.
Documents presented during the trial showed that Radosavljevic was signing permissions for food and supplies for the Petrovo Selo training centre at the time of the murders. But he denied being aware of what he was signing or that there were prisoners at Petrovo Selo.
He also claimed that at that time, he only visited the centre occasionally, while at the time of the murders, he claimed to have been on vacation and was not aware of what happened to the three brothers.
But Orlovic of the Humanitarian Law Centre said this was impossible.
“Simply because of the police hierarchy, it is not possible that something like that happens at a police centre and that the commander of that centre is not [made] aware [of it],” shesaid.
A US diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks said that in 2006, Serbian interior minister Dragan Jocic “believed the government had an unfinished, but broadly accurate, picture of what had happened, but needed more compelling evidence to be able to make prosecutions and convictions stick”.
It said that “one outstanding problem, [Jocic] noted, was that the orders for the killing appear to have come from ‘the top’” – from Djordjevic and Radosavljevic.
Both Djordjevic and Radosavljevic were not in Serbia at the time, and the case never progressed.
Data obtained from the Serbian police by US FBI investigators said that at the time of the murders, a group of approximately nine police special operations unitinstructors were conducting training sessions at Petrovo Selo.
According to the US investigators, Serbian police said that “ballistics analysis of a bullet found in one of the brothers’ bodies confirmed that it was from the same type of weapon commonly used by the [police special operations unit] instructors”.
The ballistics analysis identified the type of weapon used in the killings as a Heckler & Koch semi-automatic pistol with an integrated silencer. According to the Serbian police, this was a fairly rare weapon.
But the owner of the gun has still not been identified, and only this week the current Serbian interior minister Nebojsa Stefanovic admitted that the “ballistics were not properly done”.
“We came into possession of that weapon and a new examination is ongoing,” Stefanovic said.
Prosecutors hit a ‘wall of silence’
During the trial of police officers Stojanovic and Popovic, several witnesses were threatened by people believed to be linked to some of the PJP’s members.
According to the leaked US diplomatic cable, Serbian chief prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic met with “a wall of silence” when examining witnesses.
At the time, Vukcevic said that his office “was convinced that Goran Radosavljevic ‘Guri’ knew of or approved the murder [of the brothers] and that he had instructed and intimidated witnesses in this case”.
According to the US cable, “Vukcevic implied that the forces around Guri might be behind threat letters sent to the prosecutor”.
The source in the prosecutor’s office told BIRN that many witnesses in the case refused to testify, mostly for two reasons – the concern that they might incriminate themselves and fears for their safety, as Radosavljevic is still a powerful figure in the country.
Orlovic agreed that the main issue with the case is that witnesses are scared.
“One of the key figures related to the murder [Radosavljevic] is still in a high political position in the most powerful political party in Serbia, and Guri often appears on TV shoulder-to-shoulder with the most powerful man in the country, next to the PM Vucic,” she said.
Madhiraju, who represents the Bytyqi brothers’ family, said witnesses have also told his team that they do not dare to appear in court.
“Witnesses have expressed that they are under threat. Under these circumstances, they won’t testify. The documents and other hard evidence is relatively good, but without an environment where witnesses feel safe to testify truthfully, there cannot be a credible prosecution,” Madhiraju said.
“This is where Prime Minister Vucic has failed. He should be creating a safe space for witnesses, not for Radosavljevic,” he added.
Radosavljevic could not be reached for comment about the latest developments in the case, but when asked about the allegations by BIRN last year, he denied any involvement.
“I trust Serbian institutions. If they want to prosecute me, they can,” he said.