Suspected war criminals who arrived in the US among Bosnian refugees in the 1990s are facing trial. Many say they are the innocent victims of overzealous investigators. Gero Schließ reports from Phoenix.
Esad Boskailo says Bosnians in the United States have waited 21 years for justice. Now "it's correction time," says the director of the psychiatric ward at the Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, when asked about media reports of convictions and deportations of war criminals from the former Yugoslavia.
Boskailo, a "Bosniak," as Bosnian Muslims call themselves, says some of his patients have suffered from "re-traumatization" as a result of reports that accused war criminals from the former Yugoslavia were going on trial in the United States. Images of the past are surfacing once again.
In the mid-1990s, 150,000 Bosnian war refugees found a new home in the United States, among them an unknown number of criminals responsible for atrocities during the 1992-95 conflict. The town of Srebrenica has come to symbolize the war's horrors. As the world watched, 8,000 people were executed by Bosnian Serbs in July 1995. However, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims were also among those who committed war crimes.
Investigations and deportations
As of March, according to reports in the New York Times and Washington Post, US officials had identified about 300 people whom they believed had lied about their wartime activities upon entering the country. Michael McQueen, who conducts war crimes investigations on behalf of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), confirmed those figures in an interview with DW. And, he said, up to 70 suspects have already been deported to Bosnia - or fled the United States. One of them is Marko Boskic, who, according to McQueen, was attached to a military unit that actively participated in mass executions in Srebrenica. He was extradited to Bosnia, but, after cooperating with law enforcement agencies there, he was only sentenced to 10 years in prison. At least, McQueen concluded, four other perpetrators could be apprehended and convicted as a result of Boskic's statement.
In Phoenix, which has the largest Bosnian population in the US, such cases trigger anxiety as well as hope. "The Bosnian community feels that justice is forthcoming now," Esad Boskailo told DW.
Boskailo is from Pocitelj, located about 220 kilometers (135 miles) from Srebrenica. He is a victim of the war: Now aged 56 and a father of two, he spent a whole year in six different prison camps. Boskailo was bullied and tortured. After his release, he was too weak to walk. Eventually, he was reunited with his family in the United States, with help from the UN and the US government. His book, "Wounded I Am More Awake," is a record of his wartime experiences.
Recent developments don't seem to impress Boskailo very much: It's "OK," he says simply, keeping a straight face. However, he concedes that others - like one of his patients, a 45-year old woman from Srebrenica - have been "moved much more." As a result of the massacre, she had lost her husband, two sons and two brothers - 20 members of the family in total.
A gathering place
Like many other Bosnians residing in Phoenix, Boskailo loves dining at the Old Town Sarajevo restaurant, where Seda Turulja serves specialties from back home. Her take on the arrests and proceedings: "It's not important what you are: Muslim, Croat, or Serb," she said. Everyone must be held accountable for their crimes - "even if it were my own brother who had committed those atrocities," the feisty businesswoman said. Like many Bosnians in the United States, she has great faith in US jurisprudence. Many believe that it is better for the accused to stand trial here than back home.
Turulja welcomes customers from all of Bosnia's ethnic groups to her restaurant and serves them beer from many parts of the former Yugoslavia: Proudly, she points at bottles from Croatia, Serbia, the autonomous Republika Srpska in Bosnia, and Montenegro.
Vitomir Spiric, an Old Town Sarajevo visitor, swears that he did not commit any war crimes. However, the 43-year-old has been under investigation since 2005. He had to appear in court, initially accused of war crimes, later merely of giving false testimony when entering the United States. Spiric disputes the charges: "I didn't commit any crimes." He says he fell under suspicion simply for being a Bosnian Serb. During the war, he says, he repeatedly deserted from Serbian units and did not take part in any fighting whatsoever.
The ICE's McQueen admits that, 20 years on, it has gotten harder to come up with evidence against individual suspects. Hence, the immigration authority has downsized many cases to mere investigations into false testimony prior to entering the country. Predominantly, this applies to Bosnian Serbs, many of whom concealed their military service at the time of immigration. Thomas Hoidal, the lawyer who represented Spiric, says ICE has produced "feeble evidence" and calls prosecutions that focus on "false testimony" - in the wake of unsuccessful war crimes accusations - questionable at best.
Spiric's is not an isolated case. The lawyer Chris Brelje has represented 25 clients who have faced such allegations. He criticizes McQueen and prosecutors for painting defendants with "too broad a brush" and targeting innocent people. "Bad things happened over there," Brelje told DW. "But this doesn't mean we should persecute people for whose participation in committing atrocities there is no evidence."
The immigration court will next see Spiric in March 2019. Until then, he will live in fear of deportation. "This is no life," he sighs. However, he has managed to settle in, living in his own house without debts and counting Croats and Bosnian Muslims among his friends. "Everyone is welcome here," he says, jumping up from the sofa as the doorbell rings. A friend has come calling.