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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Despite the setbacks, government officials expect even more prosecutions as part of the renewed efforts of DHS's Human Rights Violators initiative. Simply being part of the military units is not a crime, and if people were honest about serving in the VRS, they aren't being thrown out of the country, says Richard Butler, the lead investigator who also helped prosecute Balkans war crimes at The Hague. But, he says, those who lied should face consequences because "there are bona fide people out there who might not have gotten the opportunity to come here because of those who did by committing fraud."

In the meantime, the Balkans cases have disrupted lives and stirred up old feelings that Serbs are being unfairly singled out. Nobody from the other ethnic groups—Croats, Albanians, Bosnian Muslims—has faced similar charges, they argue. The limited enforcement "raises this perception of legitimacy and fairness," says Laurel Fletcher, a human rights law specialist at the University of California-Berkeley. "[These cases] are essentially associational crimes, and people are feeling that in the context of a war, when they weren't given a choice and political dissent was not permitted, that they shouldn't be judged for their actual association." Government officials say they are investigating all ethnic groups from the Balkans conflict but declined to discuss how many cases they expect to bring.

The impact of these cases has been felt deeply in St. Petersburg's Serbian community, where five men have successfully fought trial and more than a dozen others were questioned but not charged by the feds. "There is lot of raw emotion still there," says Scott Raspopovich, president of one of the Serbian churches.

When investigators first visited Krsmanovic in September 2006, he did not deny his involvement in the VRS, but he says he was never asked about foreign military service—a routine question on the application form—when he submitted his paperwork for permanent residency. He suggests that the problem was with the agent who translated his answers from a series of questions on a separate form in Serbian and did not go over them with him orally. (During trial, a federal agent admitted that the government had no specific evidence that Krsmanovic had actually been asked the question by the agency.)

More important, Krsmanovic insists, is that he was never involved in any war crimes related to Srebrenica or otherwise. And Krsmanovic says his participation in the VRS was hardly voluntary. After his family fled to a refugee camp in Serbian-controlled Bosnia, military officials drafted him, a common practice during the war. He tried to escape to his family but was quickly caught and sent farther away to guard a trench near the town of Bratunac, a site where Muslims had previously been forced from their homes. He says he was stationed there for the next three years doing little more than waiting—and tried to desert three more times. On the final attempt, he says, Serbian military officials beat him so badly afterward that he spent 10 days in a makeshift hospital.

Asked about Srebrenica, Krsmanovic says he knew there would be a military operation ahead of time. But he says his unit did not participate, nor did he have any idea it would lead to such atrocities. "I always think about my own family and my own sons," he says. "How can people kill someone's child? It's unthinkable."

When he arrived in the United States in 1999, Krsmanovic tried to put the war behind him. He found work as a machine operator, and his three sons enrolled in school. His indictment, in December 2006, changed that. Krsmanovic began to have "second thoughts" about his new country and worried about what would befall his family in his absence. The acquittal renewed his faith in the U.S. system and gave him hope that his last battle in immigration court may yet fall in his favor.