A jailed Serbian assassin’s 10-year battle against extradition from SA – and his failed bids for freedom
In 2011, Sasa Kovacevic was unknown to the public. But later that year, following a pivotal underworld murder, his real identity was revealed and he has since fought against being sent back to his home country, where he is wanted for killing one of Europe’s most feared warlords.
On 21 March 2011, Sasa Kovacevic’s life changed irrevocably.
He had been driving rumoured intelligence operative and nightclub kingpin Cyril Beeka in the Cape Town suburb of Bellville South when a gunman on a motorbike opened fire on them. Beeka was killed, Kovacevic was wounded.
Cocaine was found in the vehicle the duo had been in and as a result Kovacevic was arrested and fingerprinted – “a process which resulted in his true identity being established and [an] extradition request”.
Kovacevic, it turned out, was Dobrosav Gavric, who is wanted in Serbia.
Gavric, 46, has been jailed in South Africa since his arrest in December 2011. He was dealt a significant blow in the Cape Town Magistrates’ Court where it was ruled last month that he would not be granted bail and released.
His previous application to be freed had also failed.
Gavric has also been fighting against extradition to Serbia – a battle that is ongoing.
He has tried via legal processes to secure refugee status in South Africa, but has not succeeded.
The several legal battles he is central to, and has driven, have played out in various courts over nearly a decade, including the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court, the Western Cape High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court.
From details gleaned from court proceedings, Gavric’s life from Serbia to South Africa and then to jail cells here, can be pieced together.
He was born in Loznica, Serbia in March 1976.
“[Gavric] studied in Serbia and qualified as a police officer. He later on joined the Serbian Police Force, and worked with the Serbian Special Forces where he was assigned to the Serbian Crime Prevention Unit, which performed duties like crowd control as well as providing special protection to VIPs,” 2016 Western Cape High Court papers, relating to Gavric’s attempts to effectively obtain refugee status, said.
The papers then provide some history:
“During the 1990s, the Republic of Yugoslavia was embroiled in a series of terrible internal revolts, ethnic conflicts and wars. The instigator of the wars was Serbian President Slobodan Milošević who rose to power in the 1980s on the basis of populism and extreme Serb nationalism.
“During his tenure he brought all organs of state under his control, weakened the rule of law and eroded human rights, and he increasingly allowed corruption and violence to become a part of governance. Milošević then used a variety of underhanded methods to coerce non-Serbs to flee from their homes, including the use of paramilitary groups to commit atrocities. The most feared and famous of these paramilitary groups was Arkan’s Tigers – whose commander was Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic.”
Arkan and two of his bodyguards were killed at a hotel in Belgrade on 15 January 2000. Gavric, who had also been at the hotel, was wounded – a bullet penetrated his back.
He became a suspect in this triple murder.
According to Garvic, though, he had simply been at the hotel “to meet some friends, celebrate the New Year on 13 January, in the Orthodox calendar and relax for a few days, as it was the turn of the millennium”.
Based on the 2016 high court papers, relating to Gavric and asylum status, for the first three years of the Arkan murder trial Gavric was kept in solitary confinement because it was believed he would be killed if kept among the general prison population, which included many of Arkan’s jailed associates.
After the three years, Gavric, while still accused of murder, had been released from custody. He went back to his hometown in Serbia to work with his father.
However, according to Gavric, by 2006 it soon became clear that Arkan’s allies wanted him dead and that evidence was being manufactured to ensure his conviction.
This, based on Gavric’s account, was why he fled Serbia.
“[He] obtained a passport from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the name of Sasa Kovacevic, and fled via Croatia, Italy, Cuba and to Ecuador. He stayed there for almost a year,” the court papers say.
“In 2007, he travelled to South Africa, to his intended destination. Upon arrival in South Africa, he kept using the alias of Sasa Kovacevic. [He] did not reveal his true identity.”
Gavric entered South Africa on a three-month visitor’s visa and his wife and two daughters joined him later. At some point he had settled in the Cape Town suburb of Tokai.
“His reasons for concealing his true identity were that he was afraid that as soon as his whereabouts became public knowledge he and his family would be targeted, as he is a fugitive, suspected of killing one of the most infamous men in Europe,” the court papers say.
Gavric, who has denied involvement in the murder of Arkan and the two bodyguards, was ultimately convicted of the murders in October 2008 (two years after he fled to South Africa) and faces an effective 35 years in jail in Serbia.
He apparently managed to stay under the radar in South Africa for a while, using the Sasa Kovacevic alias, until Beeka’s March 2011 killing put him fully on local authorities’ radar.
He handed himself over to the Hawks and was arrested in Cape Town on 27 December 2011, after which his textured history was revealed publicly as court matters unfolded in South Africa.
Serbia wanted to have him extradited to be jailed for Arkan’s murder.
To avoid being sent back to Serbia Gavric repeatedly tried, and failed, to acquire refugee status.
In April 2018 he may also have been dealt a further setback. That month a man – apparently Milan Djuricic – was murdered in Strijdom Park in Gauteng.
This linked to Gavric because when he had been at the Belgrade hotel in Serbia when Arkan was murdered in 2000, Gavric had arrived there to meet a friend – Djuricic.
Djurcic’s murder in turn linked to several interlinked killings, some of which also seemed to be tied to Beeka and some of his associates.
In January 2020, in a move that Gavric has argued will lead to his own murder, the Cape Town Magistrates’ Court ruled that he could be extradited.
As part of his case against extradition, Gavric alleged “that his prosecution, conviction and sentence were politically motivated and that he fears for his life should he be returned to Serbia”.
But it was found that these aspects were not for the court to consider.
“Given that [Gavric] has been convicted of an extraditable offence committed within the jurisdiction of the requesting state, which state is a party to an extradition treaty with South Africa, I find that… he is a person liable to be extradited to the Republic of Serbia,” the judgment relating to his extradition found.
“He is committed to prison to await the decision of the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development with regard to his surrender to the Republic of Serbia.”
Gavric is trying to appeal this.
In October 2020 he tried again to be released from custody.
He applied for bail in the Cape Town Magistrates’ Court based on new information relating to himself.
“Among the grounds furnished was the fact that he has [a] medical condition, he needs to be granted bail in order to assist his wife to look after their children, he will not flee South Africa and he considers South Africa as his family’s permanent home,” the judgment in his bail application said.
“In addition, he outlines what considers to be negative effects of his ‘extended incarceration’.”
However, the court found against him.
“The state of health of the applicant as well as his family ties and assets he holds in this country have been given full consideration. The issue is whether there are new facts shown by the applicant which are sufficiently different in character to constitute new facts,” it ruled on 14 January.
“This court finds that there are no new facts presented in this application and that the risk of the applicant fleeing and evading his extradition to Serbia remains the primary issue and it would be wrong to admit the applicant to bail.”
Gavric is therefore still in jail and fighting extradition. The case is set to resume in April.
If he is extradited it will mean a key witness to Beeka’s murder – one of the most pivotal underworld killings in South Africa, which remains officially unsolved – will leave the country. DM