By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2006
A Justice Department dragnet based on war crimes probes in Europe led to 26 arrests in the past week of Bosnian Serbs who had obtained refugee status in the United States by allegedly concealing their service in the Bosnian Serb military during the bitter Yugoslav conflict of the mid-1990s.
The arrests occurred in at least eight cities, including Denver and Orlando. They reflect an intensified effort by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to root out unacknowledged members of the Bosnian Serb military using data supplied by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, located in The Hague.
A former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who worked at The Hague from 1997 to 2001, Richard J. Butler, helped instigate the U.S. effort when he prodded the agency to compare immigration records with lists of Bosnian soldiers in units linked to the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the town of Srebrenica. The killings are considered the worst European war crime of the past 50 years.
Butler was a key witness at the trials of Bosnian Serb officers involved in the massacre before the Hague tribunal, where he spent three years reconstructing events at Srebrenica from seized military documents, combat reports, photos, videotapes, witness testimony and transcripts of intercepted radio communications. He now works at the immigration office in Atlanta.
In 2004, U.S. officials said, immigration agents in Massachusetts were investigating Marko Boskic, a Bosnian Croat who served in a Serb military unit at Srebrenica, when Butler offered them a list of soldiers attached to other units deployed in or near the Bosnian town.
That list has since become fodder for a nationwide investigation overseen by the immigration office's Human Rights Violators and Public Safety Unit in Washington. Boskic has been convicted of immigration fraud.
Those targeted are a small fraction of the more than 200,000 refugees who came to the United States from the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, mostly because of the Bosnian conflict. Previous immigration roundups related to Srebrenica, in September 2005 and in June, netted 20 Bosnian Serbs in Phoenix and four Bosnian Serbs in Salt Lake City. Like those arrested in the past week, they were charged with visa fraud, perjury or making false statements.
Some of those recently arrested have been criminally charged and face prison terms, while others have been put into administrative proceedings that could lead to deportation. Most have families or jobs here. After deportation to Bosnia, which is now independent and governed by an ethnic coalition, they could face further investigation, detention and prosecution by the country's indigenous war crimes chamber.
Only a few of those arrested here are accused by the Justice Department of directly taking part in the Srebrenica killings, but all allegedly were in units that did.
A government affidavit filed before the recent arrest of Nedjo Ikonic in Greenfield, Wis., for example, alleges that he commanded a police company that oversaw the evacuation of Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica as part of the planned massacre. It cites a report written by Butler, witness statements and a police roster recovered by Hague investigators from a headquarters building in Bosnia.
No one answered the telephone at Ikonic's residence yesterday.
Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for ICE, said in a statement that her office "will not allow the United States to be a safe haven for those who failed to disclose their service in military forces that were known to commit atrocities."
An ICE official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said additional investigations are underway of Bosnian Serb, Croat and Muslim immigrants linked to atrocities but declined to provide details.