US seeking to deport Bosnians over war crimes

U.S. marshals escort Azra Basic into the Federal Courthouse in Lexington on March 17, 2011 to appear on charges of committing war crimes against ethnic Serbs.

U.S. marshals escort Azra Basic into the Federal Courthouse in Lexington on March 17, 2011 to appear on charges of committing war crimes against ethnic Serbs.

Immigration officials are moving to deport at least 150 Bosnians living in the United States who they believe took part in war crimes and “ethnic cleansing” during the bitter conflict that raged in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

In all, officials have identified about 300 immigrants who they believe concealed their involvement in wartime atrocities when they came to the United States as part of a wave of Bosnian war refugees fleeing the violence there. With more records from Bosnia becoming available, the officials said the number of suspects could eventually top 600. “The more we dig, the more documents we find,” said Michael MacQueen, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement historian who has led many investigations in the agency’s war crimes section. The accused immigrants, many of them former soldiers from Bosnia, include a soccer coach in Virginia, a metal worker in Ohio and four hotel casino workers in Las Vegas.

The effort to identify suspects included an appeal broadcast to Bosnians around the world in February, urging witnesses to come forward with any information about war crimes. Bosnians should be confident 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,” Kathleen O’Connor, a human rights prosecutor at the Justice Department, said in a message translated into Bosnian on the government-financed Voice of America network.

Evidence developed by immigration officials indicates that perhaps as many as half of the 300 Bosnian suspects in the United States may have played a part in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II: the 1995 genocide at Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces executed some 8,000 unarmed Muslim boys and men. “The idea that the people who did all this damage in Bosnia should have a free pass and a new shot at life is just obscene to me,” said Mr. MacQueen, who investigated Nazi suspects in the United States before turning his focus to the Bosnian war.

But the investigations have proven enormously complicated, sometimes dogged by years of delays and legal battles. Funding for the war crimes center at the immigration agency has been cut, officials said, and with just $65,000 last fiscal year for expenses like travel and translating, Mr. MacQueen routinely borrows a friend’s apartment when he travels to the Balkans to interview witnesses, he said. Officials say they do not have enough funding to chase every lead. “The money absolutely makes a difference,” said Mark Furtado, a senior official at the agency.

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