In spite of the fact that seven cars have been set on fire over a short period of time, so far the police and prosecutors’ investigation yielded no indications as to who might be responsible.
“Somebody is setting cars on fire, cars that belong to the heads of the city police, and yet the police and the prosecutor’s office keep silent. I just wonder what would happen to an ordinary citizen who crossed a thug?”, asked Ivana Stanković, 34, a nurse from Niš, when asked how she felt about the latest events.
In just one month, at least seven cars have burned in the third largest city in Serbia – Niš.
In four cases there is no doubt that the cars were set on fire deliberately, however, the perpetrators remain unknown and there are no indications whether these cases are connected.
The offenders targeted cars owned by the highest municipal and police officials – from Miloš Bandjur, deputy mayor of Niš, to Zoran Bogdanović, deputy head of the Police Administration.
In the midst of this “epidemic”, the citizens accidentally found out that the car of Dejan Utvić, head of the Criminal Police, was also burned.
Yet, the city officials did not bother to inform the public about any details of the investigation and the police and prosecutors tried to keep the incidents secret for months.
In the wake of these events, Ninoslav Mitić, former head of the police department in Niš, was dismissed after two years at this position. The office was taken over by the chief of the Pirot police, Slaviša Virijević.
The police keeps quiet and the public is scared
Official statements on arrested pick-pockets and burglars or announcements of video surveillance of the sports events are issued almost on daily basis, however, information about burned cars of the highest police officials have not been mentioned in any of the official announcements made by the Police Administration in Niš.
The local police told us that they were not allowed to communicate with the media without approval from the central office of the Ministry of Interior and our request to interview Ninoslav Mitić went unanswered for ten days.
We had no success with the prosecutor’s office either, as they refused to give information to reporters.
We are doing everything we can, said Saša Djokić from the Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Niš, but there are no results yet.
“The police conduct the operative tasks and we have issued an order for biological examination of the crime scenes. The judge in charge of the preliminary procedure has been issued an order to procure information from the base stations that could be used to identify the perpetrators, but so far we had no results”, said Djokić.
Burning cars and silence of the police officials who appear to be unable to discover the offenders make the citizens fear not only for their cars but for their lives as well.
“Every other night a car is set on fire. I am aware that there is no particular reason for anyone to burn my car, but they might set on fire a car parked next to mine, or a passer-by might die”, said Ivana after seeing off her eight-year-old daughter to school.
President of the Human Rights Council of Niš, Dragan Djordjević, said that he was extremely worried, even more so because he sees these incidents as “a clear message”
“I don’t know where else they burn cars to send a message. I heard that it happened only in Kosovska Mitrovica”, said Djordjević.
He added that he was not quite sure whether the police and prosecutors are truly dedicated to the investigation of these crimes and confirmed that their silence is causing even more fear among the citizens.
“It is evident that these are not isolated incidents anymore. These attacks endanger not only targeted people but everybody who lives here”, said Djordjević.
Arson attacks as a result of party disputes
Reporters and even officials of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) agree that escalation of violence is caused by a rift within this party in Niš.
Deputy editor in chief of Južne vesti, Aleksandar Stankov, said it was clear that quarrels and disputes between the party members have boiled over into open hostility and a no holds barred feud.
“There are several factions, explained Darko Glišić, president of the executive board, and these factions use both state power and criminal acts to secure their dominance. They arrest and accuse one another and sometimes somebody’s car goes up in flames overnight”, said Stankov.
The level of hostility between SNS factions in Niš is also evident from the fact that there have never been party elections in this town since the establishment of the party. The officials were appointed directly from the “headquarters”.
Another illustration is the farce surrounding the appointment of new directors of public companies, which, as many people here claim, was the actual trigger for the series of arson attacks.
The commission tasked to appoint new directors worked in deepest secrecy, claiming that they had to protect personal data of the candidates. Heads of the Commission never published the list of candidates who applied.
That is why it turned out, the trouble started when the list of recommended candidates was first presented to the City Council.
The harshest reactions came from Miloš Bandjur, deputy mayor, who said that the Commission “failed to implement the recommendations of the Government of Serbia” and that “knowledge and skills” of the candidates, and even their formal eligibility to apply, had not been verified.
Aleksandar Stankov, who is also the editor of the political desk in Južne vesti, believes that the war over these positions was raging even before the procedure was completed. Finally, the decision on new directors of the public companies was not passed by the Commission or the City Council, as required by law, but by SNS leadership, even before the vote at the City Assembly.
“According to unofficial information, the key problem was the dispute between the City Council and Zvezdan Milovanović, the trustee of the SNS branch in Niš,”, Stankov said.
There are even public rumors going around that the wave of arson attack was a result of the clashes within SNS caused by disputed appointment procedure.
“I have found evidence that the candidate who was promised a position did not meet the legal requirements to be appointed. The Commission was aware of that, but nobody objected and the candidate was recommended for a position at the Water Supply Company. The City Council rejected this recommendation and appointed an acting director instead”, said the deputy mayor Miloš Bandjur.
Bandjur also said that he gave names of the people he suspected were involved in the burning of his car to the police and prosecutors, but the suspects were invited for questioning only 20 days later.
“All I know is that one of the two agreed to take the polygraph test, and then, in the middle of the procedure, faked that she suddenly felt very sick, so the questioning had to be stopped. The other one refused to take a polygraph test.
He did not want to reveal any names, but he said that they were “one former director and his close associate”.
Policemen after politicians
Momir Stojanović, former delegate and head of the SNS party, retired general and former director of the Military Security Agency, did not want to give any names, but in his guest appearance in the show “60 minuta” broadcast by Južne vesti presented his views regarding motivation and possible perpetrators of the arson attacks in Niš.
“What is going on here is a battle between the remaining healthy core of the SNS party and the growing faction which is colluding with criminals. The burning of the cars is a result of the ongoing clash between the appointed directors and those who were not appointed.
On the same occasion, towards the end of November 2017, Stojanović said that even before the current wave of attacks the cars of two police inspectors had been burned down.
However, the police denied these claims and kept insisting that no cases of police officials’ cars being set on fire have been reported.
Before that Južne vesti discovered that just a couple of days before burning of Miloš Bandjur’s car, the car belonging to police officer Dejan Jovanović was also burned and that in September 2017 the car of the head of the criminal police disappeared in flames.
5 of September – although the police officials in Niš claimed that they had no knowledge of their officers’ cars being set on fire, the minister of interior Nebojša Stefanović said at the beginning of December that the car belonging to Dejan Utvić, the head of the Criminal Department of Police Administration in Niš, was burned back in September.
1 of October – a car of a hotel owner in Niš
16 of November – Miloš Bandjur, deputy mayor of Niš
19 of November – Goran Djordjević, director of Tržnica
17 of December – Zoran Bogdanović, deputy head of the Police Administration in Niš
19 of December – a car exploded in the suburb. Although there are no indications that the fire was caused on purpose, this is the only incident which caused casualties.