The Challenge of Prosecuting Serbian Refugees

The U.S. is struggling to link Bosnian Serbs to the infamous Srebrenica massacre.

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Strahinja Krsmanovic, a Serbian citizen living in the U.S., was recently acquitted on charges that he lied on his immigration form about being involved with the Republika Srpska Army unit that committed war crimes.

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From a hilltop above his Serbian village in central Bosnia, Strahinja Krsmanovic watched the house in which he was born burn to the ground. Chased out by Muslim forces during the notorious assault on the city of Visoko in 1992, the 43-year-old bookkeeper had fled the house with his family just days before, becoming a refugee in his native land.

Now, more than nine years after reaching safety in St. Petersburg, Fla., Krsmanovic finds himself at risk of losing another home and being separated from his family, all for a crime a federal jury said he did not commit. How Krsmanovic's fate could shift so dramatically is part of a larger story about the intensified efforts of the U.S. government to go after alleged war criminals—an effort that, at least among Bosnian Serbs, has begun to falter.

Since 2004, federal officials have targeted dozens of Bosnian Serbs from Arizona to North Carolina whom they allege served in the military units in Serbian-controlled Bosnia that brutally massacred thousands of Muslims at Srebrenica during the last months of the Balkans conflict in 1995. After capturing the city, then a U.N.-designated safe area, military and police forces of the Republika Srpska executed at least 5,000 men in just seven days. The event is considered the largest single act of genocide since World War II.

Although federal prosecutors have trumpeted these cases—some criminal prosecutions and other civil cases brought in immigration court—as a renewed attempt to catch human-rights abusers, none of the defendants has actually been accused of a war crime, a charge for which the United States does not have jurisdiction. Instead, like Krsmanovic, those with ties to the military units connected with the massacre have been charged with the far lesser offense of lying on their immigration forms about military service in the army of the Republika Srpska (known by the Serbian acronym VRS). But without any proof—or allegation—of human-rights violations, the government's cases have not been nearly as successful as prosecutors had hoped.

Charging suspected war criminals for immigration violations, which goes back decades, gathered force in the late 1970s when the United States began using the tactic to deport dozens of former Nazi officials who had secretly resettled in the United States after World War II. But there was a key difference with the Nazis: Prosecutors always had some indication that those charged were personally responsible for war crimes. For many of these Bosnian Serbs, however, prosecutors have no such information. And officials admit that many of the defendants may never have committed a war crime.

Government officials say these cases nevertheless serve as an important deterrent to war criminals who may seek refuge in the United States. "It's kind of like the Al Capone method," says Mona Ragheb, head of the Human Rights Law division at the Department of Homeland Security. "You criminally prosecute them any way you can. Or you sit back and do nothing." Critics, however, say the government has overstretched, going after people who are otherwise model citizens. "They are devastating," says Robert Pavich, a Chicago-based lawyer who has represented a number of men, including Krsmanovic. "These are the kinds of people we want to come to America."

The Serbs first came to the government's attention because their names appeared on a list of 11,000 individuals on the payroll of VRS military units, associated with Srebrenica, that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia recovered in 1998. To be sure, that list—which yielded about 125 names of people in the United States— has led to some key successes for the government. Among the 21 convictions on immigration violations was Milorad Trbic, a former VRS officer who was deported in 2005 and is now charged with war crimes in Bosnia, and two Phoenix men who were charged in Bosnia in connection with Srebrenica shortly after their deportation in 2006.

But many of the government's cases against the Bosnian Serbs haven't gone so smoothly. Four trials last year led to acquittals. (After the fifth hung twice, the feds dismissed charges in that case.) Ten still await criminal trial, and 23 others face immigration trials. Yet, as with Krsmanovic, the government is filing similar civil charges against those cleared in criminal court, trying to deport them through immigration courts on similar charges where the burden of proof is lower.