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The US Is Trying to Deport At Least 150 Bosnian War Crime Suspects

Immigration officials reportedly have evidence that the suspects lied on their visa applications and participated in the 1995 atrocities in Srebrenica.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 2 2015, 9:29pm

Photo by Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Four hotel casino workers in Las Vegas, a soccer coach in Virginia, and a metalworker in Ohio are reportedly among a group of at least 150 Bosnians that the United States is moving to deport after receiving information that they lied on their visa applications and may have been involved in war crimes two decades ago in their home country.

More than 120,000 Bosnians fled to the US amid fierce fighting during the 1990s. Although they were required to detail their military experience when applying for refugee status, the system depended largely on honesty rather than formal checks, allegedly allowing some war criminals and fugitives to slip through the net.

According to the New York Times, US officials have identified about 300 immigrants suspected of concealing personal information related to their involvement in the conflict. The number of suspects could double as more records from Bosnia become available.

US officials reportedly have evidence that at least half of the 300 suspects currently under investigation participated in the 1995 atrocities in Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces executed more than 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys after seizing a UN "safe area." The massacre, declared an official act of genocide by the United Nations, was the worst in Europe since World War II.

Related: After the Flood: Mines and Mass Graves in Bosnia. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

This is not the first time that suspected war criminals from the conflict in Bosnia, which stretched from 1992 to 1995 and killed more than 100,000 people, have been found hiding abroad.

In 2011, Azra Basic, a Croatian woman living in Kentucky, was arrested after nearly a decade of investigation into her alleged role torturing Serbs during the conflict. Currently in jail in the US, she faces extradition on charges that she made prisoners drink gasoline and human blood.

In January, a federal jury convicted Edin Sakoc, a Bosnian Muslim living in Vermont, of lying to immigration officials about his knowledge of two murders, a rape, and an arson that targeted Bosnian Serbs, although the court did not establish he was guilty of carrying out the acts himself.

Investigations into immigrants from the former Yugoslavia evading justice while living as refugees in the US began more than a decade ago. The impetus was a US official reading The Key to My Neighbor's House, a 2002 book by the late Global Post reporter Elizabeth Neuffer, that identified Marko Boskic as one of the Serbs responsible for executions at Srebrenica.

Lara Nettelfield, a lecturer at Royal Holloway University who has written extensively about war crimes in Bosnia, told VICE News that Neuffer's book "started this amazing chain of events," that led to the cooperation between the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugolsavia (ICTY) and the US government.

In 2003, the ICTY provided the US with a list of soldiers in Srebrenica during the genocide. The list was matched with the Central Index System, a database that includes data on all foreign "aliens" in the US, including permanent residents and naturalized citizens.

Related: St. Louis Bosnians have been dragged to the forefront of the city's racial tensions. 

Nettelfield said the information sharing has been "invaluable," and enabled cases to be brought against fugitive war criminals in North Carolina, Oregan, Arizona, and Wisconsin.

She also noted, however, that while the investigations are thorough and impressive, officials desperately lack resources. The resulting backlog of cases has left potential perpetrators of wartime atrocities at large, often living among communities of refugees that were victims of their violence.

"I've heard horrendous stories of war criminals showing up at diaspora events and flaunting their crimes," Nettelfield said. "In this way, the suffering of survivors of a genocide is continuing to this day."

The United Nations found that all of the factions — Croat, Muslims, and Serbs — in the Yugoslav wars were involved in crimes against civilians and violations of international laws, but the Bosnian Serb army backed by then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was responsible for some of the worst violence. Milosevic's forces attempted to use a campaign of ethnic cleansing to impose a Serb-dominated Bosnian state.

At least 50 immigration cases related to Srebrenica were brought in US courts in the decade between 2003 and 2013. Many of the cases resulted in criminal proceedings in the US, Bosnia, or both countries.

An attorney for some of the Bosnians accused in the latest round of cases has said federal officials are conducting a smear campaign against his clients simply because they served in the Bosnian Serb army.

Related: Balkan blood ties: Children of the Hague's accused deny the 'war crimes' of their fathers.

"These [men] aren't war criminals," Christopher Brelje a lawyer defending 12 Bosnian Serbs living in Phoenix, told the New York Times. Brelje reportedly said his clients were stationed in towns near Srebrenica at the time of the massacre, but were just "grunts in the trenches." He added that immigration officials "are painting too broad a brush."

Nettelfield noted that, while some suspects may be guilty of lying on their visa applications, they are not necessarily guilty of war crimes. Conversely, she said that if guilty individuals are deported without proper indictments arranged in their home country, they could"slip through the net for a second time."

Brelje's clients have been found eligible for deportation, but a ruling on whether they will actually be ordered to leave the country is not expected until 2019 due to a backlog in immigration courts.

Authorities are still trying to identify more suspects by encouraging witnesses to come forward with any information about perpetrators of war crimes. In a message translated into Bosnian on the government-financed Voice of America network, Kathleen O'Connor, a human rights prosecutor at the Justice Department, assured Bosnians that "justice can be served in the United States despite the fact that many years have gone by and that the conduct occurred overseas, far away."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem