Analysis 10 Nov 11

Serbian Justice: Open to Negotiation?

The release of a convicted murderer-turned-police informer prompts fears Serbia has returned to practices of the past, such as shielding criminals from justice, when it serves Belgrade’s interests.   

Dejan Anastasijevic
Belgrade, Novi Sad and Brussels
Veselin Vukotić served just eight months of a 20-year jail term for murder (Photo: Spanish Police)

Novi Sad, a sprawling city 80 km north of Belgrade, was once a dreary mixture of Communist-era concrete apartment blocks and run-down buildings dating back to the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Now the city boasts glitzy bars and restaurants and is host each summer to EXIT - one of Europe’s hippest music festivals. Novi Sad reflects the new face of Serbia officials are keen to present to the world.

The city is also host to an infamous convicted murderer whose name still inspires fear among most locals. Although the presence of this particular underworld figure is something Serbian officials are far less keen to promote.

Veselin Vukotić, 53, a boxer-turned-businessman, can sometimes be seen at the city’s swankier restaurants, accompanied by burly young men clad in leather jackets and glamorously-attired young women.

Not a bad turn of events for someone who, after lengthy extradition negotiations with Belgium, had just begun serving a 20-year prison sentence for the 1997 murder of a man in a Montenegrin nightclub.

Vukotić served just eight months in Novi Sad’s prison, before being quietly released in August 2010 on “humanitarian grounds” after suffering, officials claim, a stroke and undergoing heart surgery.

While the media has speculated he was released for reasons other than his ailing health, BIRN can reveal that he has turned supergrass and is sharing sensitive information about Montenegrin gangsters involved in illegal activities including money laundering, tobacco and drug smuggling.

Several high-level police and judicial sources have confirmed that Vukotić is now cooperating with Serbian investigators who are said to be keen to uncover evidence that might implicate key Montenegrin officials as having links to organised crime rings.

Vesko, as Vukotić is known, is a Montenegrin himself who, during the 80s and the 90s, had close ties with crime bosses and leading underworld figures there.

‘Willing to Talk’

Behind the Black Door 

Despite the warrant for his arrest issued after the Nana murder, Veselin Vukotić came back to Serbia in the early 1990s and established himself as a casino proprietor in Novi Sad.

Casino Royal, situated on the top floor of the Putnik Hotel in the city centre, flouted Serbian law which did not allow such establishments at the time. The entrance, which could only be accessed by a stairway separated from other hotel facilities, had a black iron door with a little window in it; a password was needed to get in.

The clientele was indeed exclusive. During the trial of Slobodan Milošević at The Hague, a former manager of the casino, his identity protected by codename C-48, provided a long list of regular patrons, which included Milosević's top party and security officials, and on one occasion, even Milošević himself. The witness clearly identified Vukotić as the owner of the casino and explained Vukotić's role in the Hadri and Lakonić murders.

One of the Casino Royal regulars was Mile Isakov, then one of the leading opposition figures in Novi Sad. After Milošević’s downfall in October of 2000, Isakov served as vice-premier in the government of Zoran Djinjić. But during the early 90s, he had developed something of a gambling problem.

“It was like another world, far away from sanctions and the drudgery of living in Serbia under sanctions,” Isakov told BIRN. “It was very posh, there were lots of pretty women, and drinks were all free if you played. I liked that place a lot. It was like a parallel universe.”

Isakov, who has now abandoned both gambling and politics, doesn't recall ever seeing Milošević in the casino, but he does remember many other patrons listed by C-48. And he clearly remembers Vukotić: “He was always sitting alone, with his dog by his feet, and you could see immediately that he was above all others. There was no question that he called all the shots.”

The casino was closed in 1997, when Vukotić once again had to leave the country after the Bošković shooting in Montenegro. He is now widely believed to be the new owner of another establishment: a posh cocktail lounge called PentXouse, on the rooftop of a large department store in Novi Sad.

Or at least that was the talk around town because while there are no documents to directly link Vukotić to the PentXouse, most people refer to it as ‘Vesko’s place’.

So, on a scorching August afternoon in 2011, Isakov, the former Casino Royal regular, walked into the PentXouse accompanied by a BIRN reporter.

Inside, there were deep leather chairs on the inside, and outside was a large terrace which offered a breathtaking view of the Novi Sad skyline. The place was almost empty – it was obviously too early for the usual patronage.

“Does this establishment belong to Mr. Vukotić?” Isakov asked a wiry, middle-aged waiter with a gaunt face and shifty eyes. “Why do you want to know?” the waiter asked cautiously.

Isakov explained that he was an old acquaintance of Vukotić, and that he would like to get back in touch with him and introduce him to a journalist friend. “Give me your names and your cell phone numbers, and I'll be back to you,” the waiter said.

The drinks were served – aged plum brandy in heavy crystal glasses – and, as the sun started to set, the waiter reappeared. “Mr. Vukotić regrets that he will not be able to come over today,” the waiter said. “The drinks are on the house.” 

“Vukotić contacted us before his release from the Belgian jail and told us that he’ll be dead within days if they transfer him to Montenegro. Apparently, he has fallen out with his former partners and offered valuable information in return,” a high-ranking Serbian justice ministry official told BIRN on condition of anonymity.

“He knows a lot about Montenegrin mobsters and he’s willing to talk.”

While refusing to provide details, the official hinted that information gleaned from Vukotić may lead to fresh prosecutions and the possible expansion of charges against Stanko Subotić, a Switzerland-based businessman who was sentenced on October 28 to six years in prison for cigarette smuggling.

Lawyers for Subotić, who denies any wrongdoing and was tried in absentia, said they would launch appeal proceedings.

The official went on to explain that Serbian prosecutors do not intend to put Vukotić on the witness stand as “there are credibility issues”, but said investigators were extracting background information from him.

In return, the authorities are doing their best to keep Vukotić both alive – he is considered to be at risk of assassination by Montenegrin criminals worried they will be unmasked – and, it appears, at large.

“We will do what we can to help him… within the rules of the [legal] procedure, of course,” says the official.

Murder on the Dance Floor

Vukotić fled Serbia and Montenegro – then still part of the Yugoslav federation – before he could be tried for the 1997 murder of a sailor, Dusko Bošković, during an argument on a nightclub dance floor.

The Yugoslav court heard Vukotić shot Bošković because the sailor had spilt his drink over him. Vukotić was subsequently tried and sentenced to 20 years in jail in absentia.

Vukotić is also the prime suspect in the 1990 assassination of Enver Hadri, an Albanian activist, in Brussels and is wanted for questioning in connection to the murder of a known underworld associate at Belgrade’s Nana nightclub, just weeks after the Hadri killing.

When he met his death, the 49-year-old Hadri was chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Albanian Human Rights, an organisation that collected data on the oppression of ethnic Albanian Kosovans by the Yugoslav security forces during the 80s.

Hadri was, however, also a member of the Kosovo Albanian movement Rezistenca Kombëtare e Shqiptarëve të Kosovës, a secret organisation committed to achieving independence from the former Yugoslavia and merging with neighbouring Albania.

He was shot days before he was scheduled to present his latest report - detailing the deaths of dozens of ethnic Albanians at the hands of the Yugoslav police - to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in New York. The report was eventually presented by Joseph DioGuardia, a United States congressman of Albanian descent.

Given Brussels, heart of the European Union, is home to three times as many diplomats as other capital cities, the Belgian police made finding Hadri’s killers a top priority.

Clues were thin on the ground, however, as most witnesses could only recall the assassin’s car, a Golf, and that there were three people inside the vehicle.

Still there was a suspect: the Yugoslav federal state security service known as UDBA, short for Uprava Državne Bezbednosti.    

Informer

RELATED STORIES

The Belgian police then got a lucky break; a small-time Serbian gangster named Kristijan Golubović was caught attempting a robbery in his adopted hometown of Düsseldorf, Germany.

In the hope of receiving a lighter sentence, Golubović claimed he had met the Hadri assassins several days before the murder in a Düsseldorf nightclub and had overhead them discussing “a job” in Brussels.

The German police passed on the names Golubović had given them to their counterparts in Brussels, they were: Darko Ašanin, Veselin Vukotić and Andrija Lakonić.

Kristijan Golubović told German police officers Vukotić, Lakonić and Ašanin were behind the Hadri murder in Brussels  (Photo: Fonet)

In 1992, Golubović’s story was corroborated by Marion Krueger, the estranged, German wife of Ašanin who, according to German police records, confirmed her husband was part of the plot to kill Hadri and named Lakonić as the man who drove the Golf and Vukotić as the one who pulled the trigger.

However, the Belgian investigation was again stymied as by the early 90s, war was already raging in the region as the former Yugoslavia began to fall apart. On top of this, Serbia, under UN-imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions, felt little incentive to help Brussels pursue the case.

On February 27, 2008, ten years after Vukotic fled Montenegro, Spanish police approached a man who had just returned to Barcelona from a weekend in Paris with his wife. The man had a Croatian passport under the name of Ludvig Bulić, as well as a driver’s licence issued under the same name.

The Spaniards had been tipped off by French colleagues that the traveller was none other than Vukotić, who was wanted at this time by both the Belgian and the Serbian authorities, who had inherited the Bošković case after Montenegro split from what was left of the Yugoslav federation.

The Spanish extradited Vukotić to Belgium but, 18 years after Hadri was assassinated, the authorities could not find enough evidence to put him on trial.

“It was a game of cat and mouse and he was the cat,” a frustrated Belgian police source closely acquainted with the case told BIRN, on condition of anonymity. “There were dead ends everywhere.”

Two years after being sent to Belgium, Vukotić was returned to Serbia in order to serve his 20-year jail term for the murder of the Montenegrin sailor.

While it is still theoretically possible the Belgians would ask for Vukotić’s extradition to Brussels if new evidence comes to light, that is very much “a long shot”, according to a Belgian judicial source who did not want to be identified.

Belgrade Nightclub Murder

A month after the Hadri assassination another murder took place, involving the same three characters, some 1,400 km away in the heart of the Serbian capital.

On March 24, 1990, the trio – Ašanin, Vukotić and Lakonić – met at Nana, one of the very few privately-owned nightclubs at the time. They were seated in the VIP section with their girlfriends when, according to witnesses, a fight broke out between Vukotić and Lakonić.

Shots rang out and Lakonić was found dead on the floor. Ašanin turned himself in the next morning surrendering his weapon, which was later found to be the same calibre as the gun used in Hadri’s assassination.

Ašanin was put on trial for murder in September that year, causing a stir among Serbians who were not yet accustomed to gangland-style murders. The proceedings provoked more outrage when Miroslav Bižic, a Serbian police detective, found himself charged with helping Vukotić to slip out of the country immediately after the killing.

When the police did search the apartments of Lakonić, Ašanin and Vukotić, they found them to be in possession of several passports with different names, all issued by the Yugoslav authorities, according to court reports at the time.

Bizic told the court that Vukotić was working for UDBA at the time. In the end, however, Ašanin was acquitted of all charges and Bižic was given a suspended sentence of around five months. Both were killed by unidentified gunman, Bižic in 1996 and Ašanin in 1998.

An arrest warrant was issued for Vukotić but he has never been formally questioned over the Nana shooting. He is the only one of the four still alive today.

The Nana trial also had serious political consequences. Bižic’s testimony resulted in changes to the structure of the Yugoslav police and secret services, which transferred more power to the Serbian interior ministry.

A centrally-controlled police force was exactly the tool a young populist leader needed to fulfil his political ambitions after coming to power in 1989. His name was Slobodan Milošević and he made full use of this new arrangement.

Anger over Vukotić Release

Vukotić’s release has prompted criticism within Serbia and drawn fire from the Serbian Helsinki Committee who wrote an open letter published in January 2011 by Vreme magazine demanding his immediate imprisonment or extradition to Montenegro.

One possible explanation as to why the Serbian state might be willing to cut a deal with Vukotić lies in the stormy relations between Serbia and Montenegro, since Podgorica was the last republic to split from the Yugoslav federation in 2006.

Podgorica’s divorce from Belgrade in 2006 was anything but amicable. Since then, Serbia has been keen to portray its tiny neighbour as a mafia state and smugglers’ paradise where government-sponsored crime bosses supervise drug trafficking and the import and export of contraband goods.

Serbia’s refusal to extradite Vukotić further strained relations between Belgrade and Podgorica which had sank to a new low in 2008, when Montenegro recognised the independence of the former Serbian province of Kosovo, something Vuk Jeremić, Serbia’s foreign minister, described as “a stab in the back”.

Since then, both countries have made cautious moves towards a rapprochement, but relations remain, in the words of Igor Lukšić, the Montenegrin prime minister, “far from ideal”.

During the press conference after his last visit to Belgrade in February 2011, Lukšić said that Vukotić’s case was discussed at the meeting with Serbian president Boris Tadic, but no agreement was reached.

Another possible explanation is that Vukotić – believed to have provided services to the Yugoslav and Serbian intelligence services since the mid 80’s – could reveal secrets some in Belgrade are keen to keep quiet.

Once it became public knowledge that Vukotić was no longer behind bars and had been granted a re-trial, Podgorica formally requested in January this year his extradition to Montenegro, to serve his sentence for the 1997 murder of Duško Bošković during a Podgorica bar brawl.

Serbia turned down the request, citing the terms of his transfer from Belgium excluded his extradition to third countries.

Belgrade’s refusal to hand over Vukotić prompted angry responses from Podgorica, with Analitika, the pro-government Montenegrin news agency, warning in January 2011: “Vukotić could be used as a trump card in some future monster trial against the Montenegrin leadership.”

According to a report published the same month by the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Serbia, Jelko Kacin, wrote an angry letter to Belgrade demanding an explanation for Vukotić’s release.

Kacin was promised a full explanation by Božidar Djelić, the then minister for European integration, the Serbian state news agency Tanjug reported at the time. Kacin told BIRN he is yet to receive an official response.

Vukotić Retrial Granted

Vukotić, still on temporary release, has requested and been granted a retrial, saying he was unable to properly defend himself as he was tried and sentenced in absentia. The retrial was originally scheduled for April, but was postponed several times. It is now due to begin in November.

Meanwhile, it appears Vukotić cannot even be questioned over the Hadri assassination or the Nana nightclub shooting, according to the terms of the Belgian extradition agreement.

“The agreement states quite clearly that the person extradited for one reason cannot be charged or questioned for anything else,” says Zdenko Tomanović, Vukotić’s lawyer.

“Since he was extradited for the Bošković murder, they can try him for that and only for that… but even that trial may drag on for years… I see a lot of technical snags in this case,” claims Tomanović.

Vukotić has so far refused to directly answer any questions concerning the charges.

There is some disagreement as to whether the Serbian state should be treating Vukotić in this manner.

“The government should not be doing business with someone like Vukotić, he should be in prison,” says one top-ranking Serbian police officer, again speaking only on condition of anonymity.

He claims, however, that the politicians have the “upper hand” in the Vukotić case.

The Serbian prosecutor’s office declined to comment directly on the Vukotić proceedings beyond saying they are “watching the Vukotić case closely”.

Snežana Malović, Serbia’s justice minister, would only say that they are “following the state’s rules and regulations” with regard to Vukotić.

As such, it remains to be seen whether the information provided by Vukotić will be used to launch fresh prosecutions or even resolve ongoing investigations and trials or as a political tool against the Montenegrin political elite.

Given that Serbian courts cases often drag on for years – even relatively simple murder trials – it is also unclear for how long Vukotić will be free to enjoy his exceptionally comfortable life.

Others note most societies would decline to free a man who shot dead a night-club goer on impulse on the grounds that would pose too great a threat to everyday citizens.

There are many unanswered questions in the Vukotić case, but most important of all is whether the Serbian state will discover that accepting services from people such as Vukotić may well come at a price that overreaches the benefits.

Meanwhile, it seems even in the new Serbia, one can, with the right friends and the right enemies, get away with murder. Possibly, several times over.

Dejan Anastasijevic is the Brussels correspondent for the Serbian news agency Tanjug. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network

Timeline: The Vukotić Affair

Feb 25, 1990: Enver Hadri, a prominent Kosovo Albanian emigrant activist is gunned down in Brussels in broad daylight. Three assailants escape undetected.

March 24, 1990: Andrija Lakonić, a Montenegrin boxer with a long criminal record, is killed in a shootout in Belgrade’s Nana nightclub, a well-known gangster hangout. Witnesses name two suspects who were seen drinking with Lakonić that night, but are not sure who fired the shots.

The suspects are also boxers-turned-businessmen: Darko Ašanin and Veselin Vukotić. Ašanin turns himself in and brings in the murder weapon (a gun). Vukotić disappears.

During the subsequent trial, evidence produced in court includes several passports issued to Lakonić, Ašanin, and Vukotić, with their pictures but false names. The serial numbers show that the passports were issued by Yugoslav state security service (UDBA) and, at the trial opening, Ašanin claims he’s “an employee of the federal police”.

Some of the passports carry Belgian stamps and Belgian police name Lakonić, Ašanin, and Vukotić as chief suspects for Hadri’s assassination. Ašanin is acquitted on all charges and the murder of Lakonić is pinned on Vukotić, who is on the run.

1993: Despite being wanted for murder, Vukotić is believed to have opened a high-end casino known as the Royal in Novi Sad, 80 km north of Belgrade. The casino was allegedly frequented by Slobodan Milosevic’s inner circle, including top security officials.

June 1998: Darko Ašanin is assassinated in Belgrade. His murder remains unsolved.

Nov 17, 1997: Vukotić shoots a man, one Duško Bosković, during a bar brawl in the Montenegrin seaside resort of Pržno. Vukotić escapes, but is subsequently convicted of murder in absentia and sentenced to the maximum penalty of 20 years.

Feb 27, 2008 Vukotić is arrested in Spain, where he’s been living for several years with a fake Croatian passport and a false name. He is then extradited to Belgium, where he is wanted for Hadri’s murder.

Dec 18, 2009: After an investigation lasting almost two years, Belgian prosecutors fail to indict Vukotić and agree to return him to Serbia. The Serbian authorities issue him with fresh Serbian citizenship and a passport, and he is then extradited to Serbia. He begins serving his 20-year sentence in Mitrovica prison near Novi Sad.

Dec 30, 2010: Press reports state thatVukotić was arrested in a café in Novi Sad but released almost immediately. It turns out that he was quietly released on medical grounds, pending a retrial for the murder in Montenegro. Rumours start that he may appear as a crown witness in an investigation against top Montenegrin officials suspected of being involved in a drugs and cigarettes smuggling ring.

The Montenegrin government demands Vukotić’s urgent extradition to Montenegro, accusing Serbia of preparing a political trial against its leadership. Serbia rejects the extradition request.

April 21, 2011 The Novi Sad Court grants Vukotić’s request for a retrial. The date is yet not set but is expected to begin in November. Vukotić remains at large. 

UDBA’s State-Sponsored Assassins

  • The former Yugoslavia’s federal state security service was known as UDBA, an acronym for its original Serbo-Croat name Uprava Državne Bezbednosti
  • Following a string of bomb attacks in Belgrade during the 1970s, allegedly orchestrated by Croatian separatists based abroad, UDBA ordered the assassination of key Croatian, Albanian and Serbian political emigrants
  • In 1983, Stjepan Djureković, a Croatian nationalist, was killed in Munich by UDBA agent Krunoslav Prateš who was in 2008 sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany
  • In 1988, UDBA agent Vinko Sindičić was sentenced to a 15-year jail term in Scotland after a failed attempt to kill the Croatian dissident Vinko Štedul. He now lives in Croatia.
  • UDBA, it seems, stopped using its own agents to carry out targeted assassinations, turning instead to professional criminals
  • Throughout the 1980s around a dozen similar murders were carried out in France, Germany and Switzerland but in most cases, the killers were never identified
  • After the former Yugoslav republic lifted travel restrictions during the 1960s, many criminals moved to western Europe – mostly France, Germany and Switzerland – and established powerful networks spanning several countries
  • Aside from knowing how to obtain, use weapons and evade the police, criminals were also expendable and, if caught, not easily linked to the Yugoslav authorities
  • In return for ‘services to the state’, UDBA helped shield criminals from western law enforcement agencies, provided they refrained from committing crimes back home

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