Photo: Istinomer/Zoran Drekalovic

The “Suitcase” Affair

It has been almost 13 years since the great corruption affair shook up the political scene in Serbia and left its echoes to this day. Often does one find the name of Ivica Dačić mentioned in this context. As the years go by, the memories of this event fade. But what is actually the “Suitcase” affair?

When on January 11th 2006, the police barged in the flat of the then-vice-governor of the National Bank of Serbia Dejan Simić, and arrested him and Vladimir Zagrađanin, the marketing director and a member of the City Council of the Serbian Socialist Party on charges that bribes in the amount of 100,000 euros were found in a bag next to them, it seemed that the situation was absolutely clear. However, in May 2010, the “Suitcase” affair got its epilogue – no one was actually found guilty. A month later, the same was confirmed by the Appellate Court in Belgrade. Simić and Zagrađanin were acquitted! In these first few days of 2006, the public was particularly intrigued by the fact that the then high official of the Serbian Socialist Party and nowadays its president and the vice-president of the Government and the Minister of Foreign Affairs had had a narrow escape from the police action. With his best man Zagrađanin, Dačić went for a “glass of wine” at the vice-governor Simić’s place. Only 15 minutes before the police came, he had left the flat as he had been called to an urgent meeting by the then secretary of Government Dejan Mihajlov. The Serbian Socialist Party president claimed that it was a usual call and explained how that night worn on. “I do not have a habit of peeping or asking what someone is carrying in their bags. –Have you seen a suitcase with money? – I have not seen any suitcase, nor has anyone mentioned it. Zagrađanin carried some kind of a plastic bag and I also had one with a bottle of wine for Simić. That was the first time I had ever been to his place. The Zagrađanin’s bag did not remind me of what it turned out to be afterwards, said Dačić.” (Politika, January 31st 2006).

This whole affair was linked to the “Kreditno-eksportna bank”, to which the NBS had revoked the license. One of the bank’s shareholders was the TBI Group from Israel. The bank was revoked the license, but the Supreme Court annulled the decision. Afterwards, the NBS once again revoked the license to the KEB and the Commercial Court passed on a provisional measure suspending the liquidation procedure until the Supreme Court’s final verdict. The vice-governor Simić pointed out that he did not know whether there were any conditions posed for obtaining the license by any of responsible officials of the NBS. “It is undisputable that the representatives of the NBS and myself conversed with the representative of the TBI Group shareholders Vladimir Cizelj at the NBS and suggested that they should give up the illegal procedure they lead against the NBS and against the governor and the employees, but I have never said that it was a condition for obtaining the license or any other type of authorisation, or whatsoever.” (Blic, January 13th 2006) Zagrađanin, however, admitted that on the day in question, he took from Cizelj100,000 euros that were in the briefcase, and that he was supposed to take that money to the vice-governor Simić, as Cizelj instructed him. Zagrađanin also mentioned the then governor Jelašić. “…Cizelj told me that someone from the NBS had demanded two million euros. He always insisted that it was Jelašić who demanded it through some people, but he had never mentioned any names… On January 11th 2006, I met with Cizelj at about 3 o’clock pm, at his request. He asked me to take a briefcase to my friend’s Dejan Simić. He told me that there was money in there but that it was not all. I was standing with my back towards the door when Cizelj opened the briefcase and closed it again. He said that there were 100,000 euros inside, but I did not see that. I did not ask why I should take that money to Simić’s place… The suitcase that I brought from Cizelj was in some kind of a plastic bag. When I came to the flat, I put the bag on a pouffe by the armchair I was sitting in. I was having a casual conversation with Dejan, about everyday issues. I did not tell him what I had brought, as I was supposed to leave the money at his place and leave afterwards. I wanted to leave his place twenty minutes after Dačić had left. However, the police came… I emphasise that Dejan Simić has never talked with me about any money whatsoever that he might demand from someone from the TBI. I have never met Jelašić… When the police came to the flat, the bag with a briefcase was still on the pouffe. Dejan did not try to move or hide it in any way. The briefcase was opened by the police, but I do not know if they knew the code.” (Politika, January 15th 2006)

Photo: Istinomer/Zoran Drekalovic

The governor Jelašić was directly accused by the ex-director of the Kreditno-Eksportna bank Sekula Pijevčević who had established that the vice-governor was merely an accessory in the affair as uniquely the governor Jelašić had the authorisation to assign and revoke bank licenses.”Pijevčević said that Jelašić had blackmailed his bank promising that the license would be revoked if the sum of one million out of a total of two million euros were not to be paid. He stressed that personally he did not have anything against the NBS as an institution, but only against people performing controls in the NBS, the vice-governor Simić and the governor Jelašić, who, as he said, was behind the falsified report regarding the KEB business operations.” (Tanjug, January 16th 2006) After that, the NBS brought criminal charges for defamation against Pijevčević and against the plenipotentiary of the bank, the attorney Aleksandar Lojpur. In April, Pijevčević was arrested for accusation of being a member of the so-called “bankruptcy mafia”. One should not forget that the police interrogated the governor as soon as the Suitcase Affair outburst. “The policemen came to see me at the NBS and we talked. We provided them access to all the information, including the disputed fax that Shalom Spielmann had addressed to me and Dejan Simić, that contained the phone number on which we could reach him.” (Blic, January 15th 2006) The fax sent by the TBI Group president Shalom Spielmann contained the code for opening of the briefcase lock, stated Zagrađanin. “Cizelj told me that Spielmann prepared a letter to reply to the governor’s fax, where three last numbers of the phone were actually the code to unlock the suitcase.” (Večernje novosti, January 17th 2006) Although the arrival of the key witness Shalom Spielmann was announced, he did not show up at hearings scheduled for March 1st and March 22nd 2006 “due to an illness”. At the end of the month, the two accused were released from prison. A month later, the investigation regarding Simić and Zagrađanin was completed, whereas the district attorney issued an indictment on June 13th. As stated in the indictment, Simić was accused of a criminal offense of bribery, whereas Zagrađanin was accused of “accessory to offering a bribe”. Nonetheless, the indictment was returned to the prosecution in October, as allegedly it was ill-defined and “it was unclear for which crime Simić and Zagrađanin had actually been indicted.” (Glas javnosti, October 25th 2006) In April 2007, the extra-procedural council of the District Court overruled the objections as unfounded thus bringing the indictment into force. The beginning of the trial was scheduled for October 1st 2007 and it was postponed until January 2008. The chairperson of the Judges’ Council Omer Hadžiomerović brought such a decision and justified it by saying that the majority of important witnesses had informed the Court that they were unable to appear before the court. Postponements continued in 2008, as well. The hearing was first scheduled for January, after that for April, and then for October, but all these dates were “adjourned” because, as it was stated, the key witnesses were unable to come from Israel. Finally, in April 2009, the process commenced. Before the District Court, the ex-vice-governor Dejan Simić pleaded not guilty to receiving bribes and that the “Suitcase” affair had been conceived in order to inflict damages to the NBS and to reinstate the license to the KEB. ”It was all recorded on the police footage. By no act had I committed an infraction or a criminal offence.” (Politika, April 14th 2009) Zagrađanin, too, pleaded not guilty to all charges, whereas Ivica Dačić, who had become the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of the Police in the meantime, stated that “the damage had been inflicted to everyone and it was not known who had got the short end of the stick”. He said that Zagrađanin and Cizelj had often met and that they had maintained a rather friendly relationship, but he also admitted that he had met the NBS governor Radovan Jelašić twice, who told him that it was impossible to reinstate the license to the KEB. “I delivered these words to Zagrađanin, who conveyed them to Cizelj, as he told me. I was not interested in that anymore. Later, I had occasional courteous contacts with Cizelj. On January 10th when he was on his way back from Israel, he called me from the Milan airport and asked if he should buy me cigars, which I accepted. The next day, he invited me to come, so I went there with Zagrađanin to pick up cigars and seized the occasion to visit new premises of the ‘Motorolla’ branch office.” (Dnevnik, April 16th 2009) Dačić said that once he had finished a meeting in the Government, Zagrađanin’s wife called him and informed him that her husband had been arrested, which came to him as a shock. “When I later went to the Zagrađanins’, Sekula Pijevčević, the KEB director was already there. By the way, he is a long-time friend of Zagrađanin. Sekula said that Vlada had done a great thing for the police and that the goal was to locate the culprits from the NBS. He and Simić would be released from prison. In view of what Cizelj and Pijevčević were saying, I concluded that people from the TBI were convinced, and they still are, that someone from the NBS was blackmailing them I later heard that Sekula had filed charges.” (Dnevnik, April 16th 2009) In the continuation of the trial in November 2009, Shalom Spielmann, who was no longer the TBI president, finally witnessed before the Court via video-conference with the court in Tel Aviv. “Cizelj did not state the names of persons from the NBS who had demanded two million euros. He told me in Tel Aviv on January 9th 2007 that the police had advised Pijevčević to organise the delivery of the money. I told Cizelj that I was unable to provide the money and that Pijevčević should find a way to provide it with the police. Vlada Cizelj told me afterwards that the money would be delivered to Simić through Zagrađanin in a suitcase, and that I should send a fax with the instructions how to open the suitcase. I sent to Jelašić and Simić a fax informing them that I would be on a business trip and available on the phone number the last three digits actually being the code for opening of the suitcase lock.” (Beta, November 5th 2009) Spielmann stated that the bribe had been demanded so that the NBS would let his company re-enter the banking sector of Serbia via a new bank, provided that the Israeli company withdrew charges filed against Jelašić and three NBS controllers and initiated a willing (amiable) liquidation of the KEB. Spielmann said that criminal charges against Jelašić were filed after the NBS had revoked the license to the KEB. Only a few days later, on November 24th, the First Municipal Court in Belgrade found Sekula Pijevčević guilty of defamation of Radovan Jelašić and imposed a financial penalty amounting to 100,000. In 2010, with the re-election of judges, the proceedings against Simić and Zagrađanin were reinitiated. The trial started on April 7th. This time the Court was really swift. Having assessed that the “evidence was insufficient”, the Judicial Council of the Higher Court in Belgrade presided by the judge Danko Laušević freed Simić and Zagrađanin on May 21st of all charges. The judge stated that wiretapped conversations and the report on surveillance measures prepared by the Security Intelligence Agency were not included into the evidence, as the legal obligation had not been fulfilled imposing that a doubt motivating such measure be written in a demand for the application of a measure. “There is no evidence that Simić took the money at the first place.  Undoubtedly, the suitcase with the money was entered into his flat, but there is no evidence whatsoever that he actually took it. A person that Simić addresses with ‘Dear Sir’ was mentioned in the indictment. Based on the description of the act, one can get an impression that ‘Dear Sir’ gave orders to Simić what to do. It is unusual that the identity of the addressee has not been discovered – stressed the judge Laušević.” (Blic, May 22nd 2010) It is even more unusual that the court did not even try to find out who that mysterious person was, or who had filled the suitcase with the money, whether there really were “indecent proposals” put forward by the NBS and a few more disputable items. In the end, Simić, Zagrađanin and their attorneys expressed their satisfaction with the verdict, whereby Ivica Dačić did not wish to comment the acquittal, as he stated that all legal remedies had not been exhausted. However, he claimed that such verdict was not a political one. “I have not influenced anyone, I can say that straightforward. I have given my testimony three times during that trial. The third time was when I became the Minister of the Police. And to tell you the truth, I do not remember that a minister has even been interrogated before the court.” (Press, May 24th 2010) The media stressed that both judges who administered the proceedings against the accused in the “Suitcase” affair were promoted during the judicial reform. “The judge Omer Hadžiomerović, who led the proceedings in the “Suitcase” affair as a district court judge became a judge of the Appellate Court, while the judge Danko Laušević, the chairperson of the Judicial Council of the Higher Court in Belgrade, that brought the acquittal had been a judge of the Fifth Municipal Court before the judicial reform.” (Press, May 24th 2010) In February 2011, the Appellate Court stated having rejected the appeal of the Higher Public Prosecutor and confirmed the verdict brought by the Higher Court acquitting Simić and Zagrađanin. “The first instance court correctly concluded that it had not been proven that Simić and Zagrađanin had committed criminal offences, said the Appellate Court.” (Tanjug, February 8th 2011) This is the reason why one can ask whether the “Suitcase” affair existed at all.

Let us remind you, in the last decade, Ivica Dačić assumed the highest public functions. He was the Deputy Prime Minister of the Serbian Government and the Minister of the Interior (2008-2012) and the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior (2012-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Deputy Prime Minister of the Serbian Government and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He has been the president of the Serbian Socialist Party the whole time. Vladan Zagrađanin is nowadays the president of the executive board of the Serbian Socialist Party and an MP in the Serbian Parliament. Since June 2017, Dejan Simić has been a member of the National Council for Coordination of Cooperation with Russia and China presided by the former Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić.