Feature 20 Jul 16

Serbian Anti-War Reporter’s Death Remains a Mystery

Twenty-two years after the death of Radislava ‘Dada’ Vujasinovic, who reported on wartime collusion between politicians and criminals, new forensic analysis has again failed to identify whether it was suicide or murder.

Jelena Veljkovic BIRN Belgrade
Dada Vujasinovic. Photo: www.dadavujasinovic.com

The Netherlands Forensic Research Institute in The Hague has concluded that neither homicide nor suicide can be ruled out in the death of Dada Vujasinovic, who died from a shotgun wound at her apartment in New Belgrade on April 8, 1994.

In the institute’s report, which BIRN has seen, it says that tests were conducted based on the available data about biological traces and DNA analysis, the autopsy report, tests on the gun and its ammunition, and estimates of the distance at which the shot was fired, but no definite conclusion could be reached.

Back in 1994, Vujasinovic’s death at the age of 30 was initially classified as suicide, but her family and colleagues believed that she had been murdered.

Before she died, Vujasinovic, who covered the early years of the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, was working for the Serbian news magazine Duga, writing about corruption in the military and police and about the wartime collusion between politicians and criminals.

Because of her articles about unsolved murders in Belgrade, she was threatened by the much-feared Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, who was the commander of the Serbian Voluntary Guard paramilitary group as well as being an MP and a suspected crime lord.

“If you are interested who is next, write that you are next, and write that I said so,” Arkan warned her.

Vujasinovic insisted that she would not be silenced by such threats: “I do not know how to explain this, I am simply not afraid. I think that this needs to be written about in order to break the ice in some way,” she said during an appearance on the Utisak nedelje television show a few months before her death.

Contradictory expertise

The documentation related to Vujasinovic’s death was sent to the Netherlands Forensic Research Institute a year ago by Serbia’s Commission for Investigating Killings of Journalists, a body set up to probe the deaths of three journalists during and just after the rule of Slobodan Milosevic which have never been satisfactorily resolved.

The commission decided to seek further analysis because previous findings were contradictory - in 1994, an initial probe said the cause of death was probably suicide, but in 2008, ballistics specialist Vladimir Kostic suggested that Vujasinovic had probably been murdered.

“It is probably murder, especially bearing in mind that two fibre wads were found in the body of the deceased, indicating that two slugs were fired at her,” Kostic said at the time.

But the Hague-based institute refuted Kostic’s suggestion: “In this examination there were only indications found to one shot being fired. The indication to murder based on the suggestion of two shots being fired because of the two wad-parts can be refuted,” its report said.

But it also said that it could not rule out the possibility that Vujasinovic was murdered, based on the distance from which the shot was fired: “In the case of murder, any shooting distance is possible. Therefore, based on the results of the shooting distance estimation, murder cannot be excluded,” it explained.

Flawed investigation

The initial police investigation after Vujasinovic’s death was flawed - her clothing was not preserved as a source of potential evidence, and officers did not even take prints from the shotgun.

Police also stated immediately that the journalist committed suicide because she was in a distraught state.

Due to the oversights in the police investigation, the family hired a team of experts who disputed the official probe’s insistence that Vujasinovic shot herself from point-blank range.

The family’s experts also found traces of two blood types on the armchair in which Vujasinovic bled out, which suggested that someone else could possibly have been there at the time of her death. But police did not take samples of the blood from the chair as they were treating the case as a suicide.

The family’s findings were delivered to the County Prosecution in Belgrade in December 1994, but in February the next year, the County Prosecution dismissed the request for an analysis of the contradictions between the official version of Vujasinovic’s death and the version presented by the family’s experts.

In July 1995, Vujasinovic’s parents filed murder charges against persons unknown to the County Public Prosecutor in Belgrade, but the charges were dismissed. Three months later, the family’s lawyer filed an appeal calling for a new expert analysis to settle the discrepancies between the findings of the two groups of experts.

It was not until two years later that a judge agreed a new expert analysis, with pathologist Branimir Aleksandric from the Institute of Forensic Medicine appointed as the head of the expert committee re-examining the case.

Aleksandric had already been involved in the initial 1994 investigation as the pathologist, and based on the autopsy, he gave the opinion that Vujasinovic took her own life. The family filed a complaint asking for someone else to be appointed to head the new committee, but it was rejected.

The committee’s report reached the court three years later and it was identical to the first official conclusion, saying Vujasinovic inflicted the lethal injuries herself.

The County Court in Belgrade however then asked for a higher-level expert analysis, and after two years, the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Novi Sad reached the conclusion that murder could not be ruled out after all.

For the next three years, nothing happened in the case and the judge refused to make any statements - but in 2008, there was an unexpected twist when ballistics expert Vladimir Kostic concluded that Vujasinovic was murdered.

After Kostic’s intervention, the County Public Prosecutor in Belgrade asked the interior ministry in January 2009 to take steps to ascertain whether the journalist was murdered and if so, who the perpetrator was.

No ‘magic wand’

Media reported in 2011 meanwhile that state prosecutor Zagorka Dolovac said there were indications that evidence in the Vujasinovic case had been deliberately hidden.

Dolovac said that it was hard to assess whether the State Security Agency was responsible for this, but there were similar oversights in the crime-scene investigation to those in the case of the opposition journalist Slavko Curuvija, who was shot dead in 1999, allegedly by security service operatives.

Finally in 2012, the Commission for Investigating Killings of Journalists was set up to review the Vujasinovic case as well as the murder of Curuvija, and decided to seek the new expert opinion from the Netherlands Forensic Research Institute.

Asked what he thought of the Hague-based institute’s assertion that murder could not be ruled out, pathologist Aleksandric told BIRN that even in his initial report, he had not insisted that her death was suicide.

“Do you know what I wrote? That she could have shot herself,” Aleksandric said.

“[The Hague experts] do not rule out an accident, which is something I did not rule out myself, and they do not rule out murder, which was not ruled out by me either,” he added.

But he insisted that the Hague report had fully discredited ballistics expert Kostic’s suggestion that two bullets were fired.

Kostic however insisted that he stood by his claim that the gun was fired twice, and so it had to be murder: “If two shots were fired - and Dr Aleksandric’s autopsy report says that two felt wads were found and there is no question about that - how did she put the new bullet in the barrel?” he asked.

The journalist’s father, Radislav Vujasinovic, said meanwhile that the Dutch analysis simply restated a lot of what was already known about the case.

“The report clearly states, and this was officially known here as well, that key evidence was destroyed and some of it hidden,” he told BIRN.

“If someone expected The Hague to provide a solution with a magic wand, this was a costlyillusion,” he said.

Twenty-two years after a shotgun was fired in an apartment in New Belgrade and a young journalist died, attempts to finally establish the truth about what happened that day continue.

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