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Investigating Arkan: How Serbian Warlord’s Death Ended Kosovo Murder Probe

In 1999, two UK forensics experts were asked to make a secret trip to examine the bodies of a Kosovo Albanian family allegedly killed by paramilitary boss Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic. On the 24th anniversary of Arkan’s own murder, the crime remains unsolved.

On December 9, 1999, Robert McNeil, a prominent British forensic technician, was called at his home by Bill Hunt, one of the UK’s most eminent forensic pathologists.

Hunt asked McNeil to accompany him to the country then known as Macedonia, where he had been tasked by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, to carry out an important covert forensic mission.

“Bill Hunt didn’t want to tell me too much over the phone. It was a secret that only he and I could go to North Macedonia. And he just gave me some very sketchy outline of the mission,” McNeil told BIRN in an interview from his home in Glasgow.

“He had been told that Arkan was responsible for the death of an entire family from Kosovo. And I’m sure it was a family of four – I don’t know the names, didn’t know the ages either,” he said.

Arkan – real name Zeljko Raznatovic – was the most notorious Serbian paramilitary chief of the 1990s wars. His unit, the Serbian Volunteer Guard, or Arkan’s Tigers as they were known, was accused of committing war crimes across the former Yugoslavia.

The ICTY had initially indicted Raznjatovic in September 1997 for offences in Croatia and Bosnia; the indictment was kept a closely-guarded secret. Now he was also being investigated for killings in Kosovo.

“Bill further explained that the family from Kosovo had been savagely tortured and then shot and killed. Arkan had pulled the trigger himself,” McNeil said. “The point that he [Hunt] made about this particular case was that whoever asked us to go there had evidence that these victims had been killed personally by Arkan somewhere in Kosovo.”

‘They didn’t want to take any risks’

McNeil and Hunt had worked together before, examining the victims of massacres in Bosnia, including Srebrenica. In the summer of 1999, McNeil also worked with ICTY forensic teams deployed to Kosovo to conduct cause-of-death examinations of victims.

McNeil recalled that the bodies of the victims had been secretly exhumed and taken from Kosovo to a safe place in North Macedonia, where they were waiting for forensic examination.

“I hadn’t any idea where we were going, where the bodies were exactly, whether it was in a police mortuary or a hospital even. I didn’t get that information,” he said.

“In our line of work, it’s not uncommon for us not to know too much about it. Usually at that stage we didn’t make too many inquiries about the identity or place of the victims.”

Arkan had started his criminal career as a teenage thief. He then graduated to committing armed robberies and bank heists in various countries in western Europe, escaping from jails in Belgium and West Germany in the process.

He continued committing crimes after returning to Yugoslavia and also became the leader of the hardcore Red Star Belgrade fans’ group. Some of the Red Star hooligans formed part of his Serbian Volunteer Guard unit when it was set up in 1990 as the violent collapse of Yugoslavia loomed.

Arkan was seen as a dangerous individual who was covertly backed by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, so as well as keeping the ICTY indictment quiet, the bodies of his alleged victims needed to be protected while the Hague Tribunal prosecutors’ investigation continued.

“Because it was such a high-profile case, they didn’t want to take any risks of anything happening to those bodies,” said McNeil.

He argued that the safety precautions were well-founded because “the temporary mortuary near Prizren [in Kosovo] that we had been working at [while examining other victims’ bodies] had been burned down”.

‘Arkan knew too much’

“In early January we were ready to go, but we had to go on standby for a time until the UN decided it would be safe to travel to North Macedonia to carry out the job to coincide with the time when they could grab Arkan,” he recalled.

But the trip would never happen. On the evening of January 15, 2000, McNeil received a call from Hunt saying that the forensic mission was cancelled.

“I remember his strange voice saying Arkan had been assassinated by an off-duty policeman in a Belgrade hotel,” he said.

Arkan had been having a drink at the luxury InterContinental Hotel in the Serbian capital when a man walked up to him and opened fire at close range. The 47-year-old paramilitary boss was hit in the eye by a bullet and died on his way to hospital.

A junior police officer called Dobrosav Gavric was convicted of the murder, but fled Serbia and ended up in South Africa, where he fought a long battle against extradition to Belgrade.

There were various theories about why Arkan was assassinated. McNeil said that at that time it was widely believed that Milosevic had “got wind of the indictment and wanted to silence him”.

“Bill that told me that, in his opinion, it felt that Milosevic may have been behind that execution. Arkan knew too much about the part Milosevic played in genocide in Bosnia and in atrocities in Kosovo,” he explained.

Milosevic himself died in 2006, before the verdict in his Hague trial. Hunt died in 2021.

‘A reputation for savagery’

After the forensic mission to North Macedonia was abandoned, the documentation amassed during the ICTY investigation related to the killing of the family in Kosovo was never made public.

The first indictment charging Arkan was filed in 1997 by ICTY chief prosecutor Louise Arbour, while a second indictment was filed by American prosecutor Clint Williamson, according to the US State Department.

Shortly after Arkan’s death in January 2000, the ICTY’s then chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said that his indictment remained “under seal”.

Del Ponte added that the contents of the indictment remained “subject to an order of non-disclosure and that order is still in effect… I am not prepared to disclose specific crimes or locations cited in the indictment,” she added.

However she did state that Arkan’s wartime activities “in the Eastern Slavonia part of Croatia, and in eastern and north-western Bosnia for the entire period between 1991 and 1995, have been thoroughly investigated and well-documented”.

Graham Blewitt, the deputy chief prosecutor of the ICTY at that time, told BIRN that when the war in Kosovo erupted in 1998, the investigation was expanded because “it was suspected that he was involved in additional criminal activities”.

In an interview from his house in Sydney, Australia, Blewitt explained why the ICTY decided not to publish parts of Kosovo in Arkan’s investigation.

“If there was no indictment issued, there were no court proceedings, which means there was no official filing of any document that I attended by the prosecutor with the registry office,” he said.

“If that had happened, then it would be publicly available in the records. The circumstances indicate to me that it never reached a level where the prosecutor would have issued any official document.”

According to verdicts handed down by the ICTY, Arkan’s fighters mostly went to Kosovo as part of Serbian state security units, particularly the feared Special Operations Unit, JSO.

So far it has not been confirmed that Arkan was personally in Kosovo during the war, even though some of his Tigers did participate in the violence.

A report published by the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission in December 1999 documented a series of sightings of Arkan fighters during the war.

“The Tigers’ reputation for savagery was so well known that Yugoslav army soldiers occasionally spread the rumor among ethnic Albanians of their imminent arrival as a way of compelling the population to flee,” the report said.

McNeil said that he could reveal a few details of the accusations related to Kosovo in prosecutor Williamson’s ICTY indictment which have never been made public.

He explained that the indictment said there was evidence that Arkan’s men had established a training camp north of the Kosovo city of Mitrovica, and mostly operated near that city, as well as in Peja/Pec, Prizren, and Gjakova/Djakovica, wearing their trademark black uniforms.

With the forensic mission abandoned and Arkan dead, the possibility of bringing anyone to justice for the family’s murders was effectively over. Only one of Arkan’s Tigers has ever been convicted; Boban Arsic was found guilty in absentia of killing a married couple in a Croatian village in 1992.

None of Arkan’s men has ever been brought to justice for crimes committed during the Kosovo war.

NOTE: This article was amended on January 15, 2024 to clarify that Bill Hunt was a forensic pathologist.


Balkan Transitional Justice, 2024


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