18 Dec 17

Serbia’s Secret Police Files Closed to Scrutiny


Activists allowed to see their secret police files after Slobodan Milosevic was ousted say that because secrecy was quickly reimposed, suspicions remain that the intelligence service still plays a political role in Serbia.

Maja Zivanovic BIRN Belgrade

“We are far from having civilian control over the security services,” Predrag Blagojevic, a journalist and former member of the youth movement Otpor (Resistance), which participated in the toppling of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, told BIRN.

“I don’t think that anything essential has changed. I even think that some things have changed for the worse,” Blagojevic said, arguing that Serbia’s secret service has supported the country’s ruling political elites for the last few decades.

His suspicions rest on the fact that the security services’ files have been tightly shut for the past 14 years, despite calls from opposition politicians to allow some public scrutiny – as happened, albeit briefly, just after Milosevic was ousted.

Under Milosevic, the Serbian State Security Service, the DB, became notorious for its involvement in politically-driven surveillance and even murders of journalists and politicians who stood in the regime’s way.

In June 2001, a year after Milosevic was overthrown, the new government led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic decided to open the files held by the DB, to allow people to see whether they had been investigated.

Those who were confirmed to have been under DB surveillance could ask to take a look into their secret files.

According to a report published by Novi magazin in 2012, around 8,000 people inquired about whether DB had them under surveillance them or not.

Out of 420 files that were found as a result of these inquiries, some 380 people requested and were granted a look at their own files.

But Djindjic was then assassinated in March 2003, and two months later, the DB files were closed again.

After the ousting of Milosevic and the subsequent democratic changes in the country, the DB had been replaced in 2002 by the Security Information Agency, BIA.

Yet many unresolved cases from the 1990s unresolved cases involving alleged crimes committed by the former service are still in the courts, while many of the old DB staff were employed in the new BIA or moved to other state bodies.

A peek in the secret files

Blagojevic was one of the people who was allowed to see his secret file.

“We had to fill in some kind of request – mostly simple general information: name and surname, identification number, nothing special," he said.

Blagojevic, who is now editor of Serbian news website Juzne vesti (Southern News), was then a member of the Otpor movement, which mobilised large numbers of mostly young people to join the protests which eventually toppled Milosevic.

But he said that he was surprised to see that his file had no pictures, only some basic information about him.

He said that one page entitled ‘Important Notes’ described him as an “expert for computer communications”.

He said that this was probably connected to an incident in 1999 when Otpor activists found a way to crack a telecom company’s code to get free internet access.

Serbian veteran journalist Gordana Susa was also one of those people who saw their secret DB file. She recalled that the archive was located in an inconspicuous government building, rather than in the Federal Interior Ministry.

“I gave my ID card. People from the entrance took me to some rooms. I was placed in a small room where there was nothing other than a desk and two chairs, one opposite to the other,” Susa told BIRN.

“Then a man appeared, I think it was an inspector, and he brought me the file. He put it on the table. Previously, I was warned that I should not note anything, that I should not take anything and that I can only see what it says, so how much I [manage to] remember,” she said.

At the beginning of the file, she recalled, was her profile and an assessment of her personality.

“I was fascinated by the assessment of my character in which it was said that I am incorruptible. That I cannot be influenced by blackmail, bribery or in any other way, and I was very pleased with what I saw,” she recalled.

Susa was working at the Serbian public broadcaster, RTS, and while reading her secret file she was surprised to see that some of the information and her own quotes clearly indicated that the DB had sources among some of her colleagues.

But what surprised her most was the fact that DB officers had even entered her apartment.

“For me it was completely incomprehensible, because my apartment was never empty. So they knew exactly and watched [my apartment] well, entered, and I saw what they took,” Susa said, explaining that the DB was interested in her contacts and business cards.

Another former member of Otpor, Vladimir Jesic, also saw his secret DB file.

Jesic told BIRN that his file contained dozens of pages, including three of pictures of him that were taken during one of his numerous police interrogations. After all these years, Jesic is still amused by some of the things he read.

“The impression is that the named person [Jesic] is prepared and educated for this kind of informative conversation, as can be seen from the answers that were prepared in advance,” he recalled one of the files saying.

Another document suggested that the DB should continue surveillance of Jesic “in the student dorm, in room 104”, which was where he was living at the time.

In general, Jesic was surprised by the extent of the material, which included wiretapped phone conversations, accounts of debates in public places as well as speeches he made during the anti-Milosevic protests.

"They worked day after day, in three shifts, and the only question was how, in what way, would they abuse or use this data," he said.

The surveillance archives go dark again

Since the Serbian authorities revoked the decision to open the secret files in 2003, there have been several calls for them to reconsider.

In 2013, a spokesperson for the European Commission, Petar Stano, told Serbian daily Danas that “the European Commission does not require Serbia to disclose the secret documents of the security services, but ‘strongly recommends’ it to do so”.

“The opening of the secret files would help investigations of missing persons, as well of unexplained murders since 1990, including the killing of journalists,” Stano explained.

In June this year, the Institute for European Affairs, a think-tank, urged the Serbian parliament to put the security services under civilian control after state institutions refused to divulge how many people had been kept under surveillance.

But after Serbia's Commissioner for Information of Public Importance intervened, the BIA finally revealed that it had monitored the communications of 360 people and eight companies in 2015, while in 2016, the number was 405 people and eight companies.

Their names remained a secret, however.

This was not the first time that the BIA was forced to reveal some information about its work as a result of legal pressure. In 2015, Serbia's Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and the courts ordered the BIA to answer a freedom of information request about its surveillance from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, an NGO.

The BIA confirmed the same year that between July and December 2014, 168 people and two companies had been wiretapped .

Opposition politicians have said they will continue to press for the BIA to be put under tighter public control.

Borivoje Borovic, a lawyer and member of the newly-formed People’s Party, which is led by the former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, said on November 11 that one of the priorities of the party will be opening of the state security agency’s files.