Filip RUDIC  |  BIRN, Belgrade

In the afternoon of April 11, 1999, Serbian opposition editor and publisher Slavko Curuvija left a Belgrade restaurant with his girlfriend, Branka Prpa.

That day, Serbia was marking Orthodox Easter in a state of turmoil. Some two weeks earlier, on March 24, NATO had commenced the bombing of Yugoslavia in order to stop President Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, where armed conflict had raged since 1998.

An outspoken critic of Milosevic, Curuvija had been attacked in the regime press, which claimed he was supporting the NATO campaign, but he apparently did not fear for his life as he and Prpa approached Lole Ribara Street.

As they walked into the passage of the residential building where Curuvija lived, just before 5pm, two masked men approached from behind. One attacker fired five bullets into Curuvija’s back, right arm and head.

The other man hit Prpa on the head with the butt of his gun, knocking her to the ground as she tried to turn around. The first attacker fired more shots into Curuvija’s body as he lay dying on the pavement.

Slavko’s daughter Jelena was at a friend’s place when her mother called, saying that “something happened to Dad” and that she should hurry home.

“When I arrived, we called my brother, who was at the scene, who told us that [Curuvija] had been killed,” Jelena Curuvija told BIRN.

Perica Gunjic, editor-in-chief of the Cenzolovka website, a media watchdog run by the Slavko Curuvija Foundation, recalled how many media did not initially report on the opposition journalist’s murder, possibly out of fear.

“I remember his funeral and a bunch of terrified people who thought they would be next,” said Gunjic, who last saw Curuvija a day before his assassination.

Curuvija was one of 39 Serbian journalists and media workers who were killed, kidnapped, went missing or lost their lives in other ways during the 1990s conflicts and immediately afterwards, according to a database compiled by the Journalists’ Association of Serbia.

A total of 16 of them were employees of the Serbian national broadcaster, RTS, who were killed in a NATO airstrike on its studios on April 23, 1999. The RTS director at the time, Dragoljub Milanovic, served ten years in prison for defying a government order to evacuate his employees.

Three Chinese media workers were also killed in the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Democratic government lets Curuvija case languish

The initial investigation into Slavko Curuvija’s murder was “an imitation of a probe”, according to Perica Gunjic.

But he said he was “stunned” that the new democratic government that took power after Milosevic was deposed by mass protests in 2000 “didn’t do a whole lot” to push the case forward.

In an attempt to change this, the commission to investigate journalists’ murders was formed in 2012 under the auspices of the Serbian government, then headed by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. It is currently probing five kidnappings and two murders of journalists working for Serbian media, including that of Curuvija, as well as the killings of seven journalists from Kosovo Albanian media.

“In the beginning, the commission was a surprise for the Interior Ministry and the Security Information Agency’s representatives on the commission itself,” recalled its chairman, veteran Serbian journalist Veran Matic.

However, after several months of establishing trust, the commission’s members worked well and eventually this “synergy” led to prosecutors pressing charges, Matic told BIRN.

In 2014, an indictment was raised against four Serbian State Security officials – the organisation’s former head Radomir Markovic, the chief of the outfit’s Belgrade centre, Milan Radonjic, and security operatives Ratko Romic and Miroslav Kurak.

Markovic, who is currently serving a 40-year sentence for the murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and other crimes, pleaded not guilty to involvement in the murder. Radonjic and Romic also insisted they are innocent, while Kurak is on the run and has not appeared in court.

The indictment detailed how the assassination allegedly took place, explaining that it followed a long period of state surveillance of Curuvija, and documented his clashes with the regime, especially Milosevic’s powerful wife, Mira Markovic.

According to the prosecution, Romic and Kurak took a white Volkswagen Golf 3 from another State Security operative on April 9, two days before the murder.

The handover of the vehicle was not recorded in the State Security register.

They parked the car near the site where the assassination would take place, and used a radio link to listen to State Security operatives who were tracking Curuvija’s movements.

As Curuvija approached his apartment minutes before the assassination, Milan Radonjic issued an order to recall the operatives who were following the journalist, thus ensuring they would not spot the killers, according to the indictment.

Curuvija allegedly spied on for years

The prosecutors claim that the state monitored Curuvija’s activities for years, starting as early as 1994, when he founded his first magazine, Telegraf.

According to the indictment, a State Security report dating September 8, 1994, claimed that Curuvija was planning to visit New York. A report from 1995 noted that Telegraf journalists were in Italy to talk to NATO representatives and that Curuvija intended to speak with representatives of foreign countries.

Over the course of 1996, 1997 and 1998, State Security allegedly documented Curuvija’s contacts with Vuk Draskovic, then a leading opposition politician.

Reports allege he spoke with Draskovic and Montenegrin politicians Milo Djukanovic and Svetozar Marovic about the media situation in Serbia, as well as with Milosevic’s wife Mirjana Markovic, who “on several occasions saved his newspaper – and his life”, says the indictment, quoting alleged intelligence reports.

“I think that their [Curuvija and Markovic’s] association… was between a journalist and a source who could tell him what dangers were lurking around the corner for the media,” Gunjic said.

And dangers were not far away. On October 14, 1998, Dnevni Telegraf, which Curuvija started after shutting down Telegraf, was banned under a special decree, along with other newspapers critical of the Milosevic regime, Danas and Nasa Borba.

On October 20, Serbia adopted a draconic Public Information Law that stipulated heavy fines for media that did not comply with government orders. The information minister in the Milosevic government who was responsible for media at the time was Aleksandar Vucic, who would end up taking power in Serbia in 2012, and since 2017 has served as president.

Curuvija’s other newspaper, the magazine Evropljanin (The European) was closed after a court imposed draconian fines on its owner, editor, publisher and company manager, based on the new law.

According to a State Security report cited in the indictment, Curuvija met Mirjana Markovic at the Belgrade headquarters of her Yugoslav United Left party after his newspaper was banned.

Markovic allegedly asked Curuvija if he wanted Yugoslavia to be “bombed by the Americans”, to which he replied that the bombing would happen “because of the likes of her”.

He said that she would be “hanged in Terazije [square in central Belgrade]”, and left Markovic in tears, says the indictment, quoting a State Security report.

Gunjic said that Curuvija never spoke to him about the altercation with Markovic, but suggested that it would not be out of line with his character.

“He was very bold, he had no problem telling anyone, even Mira Markovic, what he thinks,” Gunjic said.

In December, the offices of Dnevni Telegraf were sealed under orders from the Information Ministry.

Noose tightens around the opposition editor

According to the indictment, State Security’s surveillance of Curuvija was then stepped up.

“His contacts with American diplomats and foreign ambassadors, then opposition leaders are particularly noted, as well as his intention to move his publishing and printing activities to Montenegro,” the indictment says.

Jelena Curuvija recalled how her father struggled to keep his newspaper running under increasingly oppressive circumstances.

“He couldn’t print in Belgrade, but in Montenegro, then smuggled [newspapers] into Belgrade. They would arrest their vendors who sold the paper in the streets, he didn’t have the financial means to print…” she recalled.

The indictment alleges that State Security monitored Curuvija’s trip to Washington, where he spoke about the situation in Serbia at a congressional hearing on December 14, 1998.

A Secret Service report from two days later allegedly says that Curuvija was pleased with his US trip, that he sought help to print his newspapers, and allegedly said that “the Americans … cannot wait for Serbs and Serbia to take a democratic path, against the rule of Milosevic”.

During Curuvija’s stay in Washington, Yugoslav United Left party official Milovan Bojic, who was deputy prime minister at the time, sued the editor and two other journalists over an article about him in Dnevni Telegraf. All three were sentenced to five months in prison on March 8, 1999.

“[He] took it in his stride: ‘I’ll go dig potatoes for few months,’” Jelena Curuvija said, describing her father’s reaction to the verdict.

He relocated to the Montenegrin capital Podgorica on March 23, but returned the following day when the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia started.

“He wanted to be where he felt he belonged – with his family. He wasn’t going to run,” said Gunjic.

Another blow came on April 7, when the government-owned newspaper Politika Ekspres published an article with the headline “Curuvija welcomes the [NATO] bombs”.

Despite that, Jelena Curuvija said her father did not believe that the regime would go so far as to kill him.

Four days after the article in Politika Ekspres came out, she was at the Atelje 212 theatre, where there was a celebration of Orthodox Easter.

“He was going for a walk, dropped by the Atelje to say hello and ask me if I wanted to have lunch. I said no, and then we parted,” she said.

It was the last she saw him alive.

Murder trial plagued by controversy

The presiding judge in the ongoing trial for Curuvija’s murder, Snezana Jovanovic, said at a hearing on October 31 that the end of the process was near and called on both sides to prepare their closing statements.

However, the controversies that have shadowed the proceedings have led Matic, the head of the commission for the investigation of journalists’ murders, to urge the dismissal of all three judges in the trial.

“There is certainly enough reason to ask for the exemption of the trial chamber,” Matic said.

In 2017, the court released from custody two of the defendants, Romic and Radonjic, and placed them under house arrest instead.

The judges tried on two occasions to dismiss potentially crucial evidence – records of mobile phone communications between the secret service operatives – which according to the prosecution places them at the scene of the crime. However, the decision was overturned both times on appeal.

The court also refused to hear the testimony of police inspector Dragan Kecman, who collected the communications records, and dismissed the statement that Kecman gave during the investigation.

However, the decision to bar Kecman from testifying was then overturned, and the inspector appeared before the court on November 26.

Kecman testified that he reached the conclusion that Curuvija was killed by the four defendants, adding that the regime considered the combative journalist to be “state enemy number one”.

Curuvija’s daughter Jelena went to the courtroom twice, once as a witness and the second time as an observer, and said that she found the experience difficult to deal with because of the confident attitude displayed by the defendants.

“They and their lawyers act like they are already acquitted,” she said.

ADDITION: On April 5, 2019, a Belgrade court convicted the four former Serbian state security employees on trial for Curuvija’s murder. Former head of Serbian State Security Radomir Markovic and security service officer Milan Radonjic were each sentenced to 30 years in prison, while secret service agents Ratko Romic and Miroslav Kurak were each given 20 years in prison. The court’s first-instance ruling can be appealed.