Social protest over student's death unites all ethnicities in Bosnia

The protest "Justice for David and Dženan" in Sarajevo (photo: Samir Jordamović / Anadolu)

Over the past few weeks, thousands of people have gathered at 6 PM every day in Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnia's Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) entity, over the unexplained death of a young student, demanding that the police resolve a series of suspicious deaths, officially claimed as accidents. The protests are organized by the "Justice for David" movement through a Facebook group which counts almost 200.000 members, and was formed as the group's description says to "shed light on the disappearance and murder of David Dragičević." They have drawn support from people in Banja Luka, Sarajevo and other cities, as well as from the Balkans and ex-Yugoslav community abroad, and thousands have rallied in many cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Daily street protests and cover-up accusations against top police officials have become a challenge to the government of President Milorad Dodik in the run-up to elections.

Death and initial investigation

David Dragičević, a 21-year-old student of electrical engineering, disappeared in the early hours of 18 March in Banja Luka. He was last seen on Sunday morning, about 3:30 AM when he got out of a nightclub. Four days later, parents offered a 100,000 KM (50,000 EUR) award for information, while grief-stricken citizens of Banja Luka combed the city streets in search for David. Parents appealed to the police to pay attention to the message David sent that night, accusing young man Filip Ćulum if something happened to him. On 24 March, the body of a young man was found in the shallow waters at the mouth of the Crkvena river, near the Fortress of Kastel close to the city center. Several days later, police held a press conference where they claimed the death was accidental, but admitted that an autopsy had revealed numerous bruises, suggesting a physical altercation had occurred prior to his death.

The team of investigators also revealed three interesting details about that night. As the police announced, at about 11:30 PM David participated in street fighting with three youngsters (Nikola Ćulum, O.G. and S.M.) in front of the cafe bar, and later they went separate directions. Darko Ilić, the head of the Department for Organized Crime of the Interior Ministry, said that police also found stolen items from the burglary-robbery in pockets of David. A laptop, 200 KM (100 EUR), a USB memory stick, a Swiss red knife and keys belonged to the house that was robbed the same evening about 3:00 AM. Furthermore, the investigators said the David's toxicology screen was positive for the presence of alcohol, THC (marijuana metabolite), as well as LSD. The first autopsy finding said that the body had been in the water for seven days at most, and added that the most likely cause of death had been drowning.

Public pressure and second investigation

The initial police report outraged his father, Davor Dragičević, who insists his son was killed. Under public pressure, a pathologist from the Belgrade Military Medical Academy (VMA) was then engaged, whose findings were different. He said the body could only have been in the water for two to four days. This added to suspicions that the victim could have been still alive for at least two days after he disappeared. The information made the public even more suspicious of the initial version of the events presented by the police. Apparent inconsistencies in police statements sparked street protests in Banja Luka. The largest protest was held on 21 April, the day before the celebration of the Day of the City of Banja Luka, when thousands filled the city center for a protest entitled "Justice for David: stop the unpunished murders in Banja Luka."

"You killed my son once, you will not kill him a second time," 21-year-old David's father Davor told the rally on 25 April. A week later, he spoke at a Republika Srpska parliamentary session and repeated claims that his son was murdered, accusing the police of trying to conceal a crime. In an emotional standout, Davor Dragičević said he knew and had evidence that his son had been detained, abused and killed a group of bullies, and then his body was thrown into the river. He also said that there are video footages which confirm his allegations, and claimed there is a police conspiracy which includes several police officers and the Interior Minister Dragan Lukač. According to Dragičević, they all committed serious unlawful acts with the aim of hindering an investigation and concealing the crime of murder.

The allegations by David's father provoked a strong reaction from the accused individuals. Minister Lukač described the accusations as "an absolute lie" and "politically driven manipulation without any evidence." He called the young victim as "a drug addict" and repeated the cause of death had been drowning, allegedly confirmed by two pathologists who separately committed autopsy and concluded that no external injuries could have arisen as a result of physical violence. Lukač also called the young victim as "a drug addict." Lukač also announced the indictment against Davor Dragičević, journalist Slobodan Vasković, and against some parliamentary deputies. He further described Vasković as "a mercenary US embassy living from attacks on the Serbian institutions." Similar lawsuits for defamation were also filed by Darko Ćulum, director of the RS Police, Darko Ilić, head of the Department for Organized Crime, and Željko Karan, director of the RS Department of Judicial Medicine.

Serbs and Bosnians unite in Sarajevo protest

On last Tuesday, a father of an ethnic Serb student traveled to the Muslim-dominated Bosnia's capital and led protest with a father of a 22-year-old Muslim who died in similar circumstances. Davor Dragičević and Muriz Memić, two grieving fathers from across an ethnically divided country, believe the two cases were both covered up by police acting in cahoots with the killers, evidence they say of corruption that has plagued Bosnia and Herzegovina since war in the 1990s. When Dženan Memić died in 2016, prosecutors initially said he was murdered, but later dropped the investigation and declared he had been killed in a car accident. The Memić family has never accepted such an interpretation, saying he was murdered and the crime was covered up. Numerous street protests have been organized to demand the truth about his death over the past two years. "I demand the names of accomplices, killers and all those who hid evidence," Dragičević told the gathering in Sarajevo. "My child was killed by a system created after the war. I will never forgive them for David, Dženan and all the other children," he said. "Criminals have no religion nor nationality, just their own interests." They were joined by thousands of supporters holding placards and T-shirts reading "Justice for David" and "Justice for Dženan." It was a unique gathering in which both Serbs and Muslims found a common ground and sent a strong message to ruling elites. Protests are scheduled to continue...

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.