19 Bosnian Serb army vets arrested in cities around U.S. for alleged roles in Srebrenica massacreBY MATTHEW MCALLESTER
Newsday Staff Correspondent
December 12, 2006
TAMPA, Fla. - Federal agents raided homes in five cities yesterday, arresting 19 Bosnian Serbs whose units allegedly participated in the Bosnian war's Srebrenica massacre, sources told Newsday.
The murder of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica was the worst war crime in Europe since World War II.
Yesterday's arrests follow one in Milwaukee during the weekend. The investigation is continuing, the sources said, and is expected to net more Srebrenica suspects than any other operation to date worldwide.
The total number of Srebrenica suspects arrested in the past two years on immigration violations in the United States is approaching 50. At least three have been deported to Bosnia from Arizona and two are in custody in Sarajevo as prosecutors there investigate them for war crimes.
Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested eight men in Tampa yesterday. Others were arrested in nearby Orlando and in Denver, Detroit and Chicago. The government alleges that all of them lied on their immigration applications, deliberately omitting mention of their service in the Bosnian Serb Army.
At the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa yesterday afternoon, five of the men arrested yesterday were arraigned before Judge Thomas McCoun.
Incredulous over arrests
"It's all nonsense," one of the men, Strahinja Krsmanovic, told one of two public defenders representing the men. He and the other four Bosnian Serbs sat in the dock with their ankles bound together by chains.
The men looked slightly stunned at the proceedings, shrugging and even laughing in incredulity when the question of their being at risk of flight, or a danger to the public, was raised.
While investigators and prosecutors do not consider any of the men a present danger, the underlying theme of the operation that led to their arrest is that they were, not so long ago, a mortal danger to thousands.
In July 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army's Bratunac and Zvornik Brigades took control of the besieged town of Srebrenica, a UN-designated "safe area" that was home to tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims. Soldiers systematically separated men and boys from women and children. In various locations around Srebrenica, the Serb soldiers tortured and executed at least 7,000 men and boys over several days.
The Srebrenica investigation in the United States started when the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague gave federal investigators a database of names of soldiers the tribunal's prosecutors believed participated in the Srebrenica massacre.
Living quietly in America
An analyst with Immigration and Customs Enforcement cross-referenced the data with immigration databases and has continually uncovered men - and in at least one case, a woman - living quiet American lives.
It is very common, investigators say, for the perpetrators of war crimes to enter the United States in the flow of refugees and immigrants who often come from countries wracked with war.
It is hard for prosecutors to prove what individual soldiers were doing during a period of several days more than a decade ago in a distant country.
The only federal law that can really be used against people living in the United States who have committed war crimes overseas is the torture statute. Just last week prosecutors in Miami, with the approval of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, brought the first torture case in U.S. history.
The paucity of strong war crimes laws in the United States leaves prosecutors with little option other than to use immigration law to pursue suspects - and ultimately deport them.
That is the fate that possibly awaits the five who appeared in court here yesterday. They spoke mostly in Serbo-Croatian, with the aid of two interpreters, about their jobs and finances.
Most of the five seemed to have settled well in the United States, with jobs and homes that they own. Krsmanovic, for example, told the court he worked at a company called Compulink and owned a home. He makes $8.50 an hour, he told the judge, who was trying to decide if each man needed a public defender or could afford his own attorney.
McCoun set a hearing for today to determine terms of release for the men. Sources told Newsday at least four other Bosnian Serb suspects fled the country this month after immigration agents interviewed them.