Mladen Blagojevic and Zdravko Bozic would probably be living unassuming lives as Bosnia Serb refugees in the Arizona desert if it weren't for a landmark international detective effort to track down war-crime suspects.
Instead, they're in custody in wintry Bosnia, where they were charged last week in connection with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
The case, say court sources, marks a precedent in international cooperation in the prosecution of war crimes, and could show the way forward for both the US and other countries that may be unwittingly hosting war-crimes suspects on their territory.
"I would describe the cooperation with the US as unprecedented, as these are the first cases where war-crimes suspects have been returned to the country where the crimes were committed to face charges," says Toby Cadman, counsel to the prosecutor at Bosnia's war-crimes chamber.
Mr. Blagojevic and Mr. Bozic were deported to Bosnia earlier this year after being arrested in the US for not disclosing their service in the Bosnian Serb military when its forces overran the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica and killed up to 8,000 men and boys – a crime ruled genocide by the UN war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. On Dec. 21, they were indicted for crimes against humanity by Bosnia's war-crimes chamber and charged with the detention, murders, and forcible transfer of Srebrenica Muslims.
In the past two years, 56 Bosnian Serbs have been arrested on charges of similar immigration fraud or making false statements over omitting their military service on immigration applications. Agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) most recently raided homes in at least five US cities earlier this month, bringing in at least 16more people. Mr. Cadman says the ICE's Operation No Safe Haven could prove a model for other countries, which, like the US, took in large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia during and after the 1990s Balkan wars.
The operation began in 2004, when ICE officials were nearly two years into investigating a Boston-area Bosnian, Marko Boskic – whose name had appeared in testimony at the UN war-crimes tribunal as well as press reports involving Srebrenica – on suspicion that he'd omitted his Bosnian Serb military service when applying for refugee status in the US. A former US military intelligence analyst who'd worked on the Srebrenica case in The Hague offered the investigators a list of 14,000 people who were suspected of having served in the Bosnian Serb military. Officials checked the names against immigration databases. The leads generated were distributed to their offices nationwide.
"A lot of our cases have actually developed because of the access to that list," says Michael Keegan, a spokesman at the Human Rights Violators and Public Safety Unit at the ICE, which has, since its creation in 2003, investigated immigrants who are not US citizens.
A December 2004 law – the Anti-Atrocity Alien Deportation Act – also gave the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations powers to go after naturalized US citizens suspected of crimes committed before they entered the country. Federal investigators had previously tracked only Nazi-era suspects to prevent them from entering the US.
"I think the United States prides itself on being a refuge for people running away from persecution, and some of these human rights violators will come to the United States seeking the same refuge as their victims," Mr. Keegan says. "And that's not hard to believe, since most of them were at the site where the atrocities were committed, so they know the details. So when they're going through their interview, it's possible for them to describe the scene and be credible."
Operation No Safe Haven will continue indefinitely, Keegan says. It also appears to be bringing in more Srebrenica suspects than any other attempts. The Hague tribunal, for example, has been able to try only seven high-ranking Bosnian Serb military and police officers in a trial that began in July, because several of the men had been brought in under so-called "voluntary surrenders." The tribunal's two most-wanted men – Bosnian Serb political and military heads Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic – remain fugitives.
Blagojevic, Bozic, and two others who were arrested in Bosnia, are the latest defendants in Bosnia's national war-crimes chamber – established in 2005 to take on mid- and lower-level ranking suspects – to be charged with alleged crimes at Srebrenica. Eleven others have been on trial for genocide since May, a trial that Damir Petrovic, a public-information lawyer at Bosnia's state court where the war-crimes chamber is housed,called "the largest criminal case in Europe right now."
A lawyer for Nedjo Ikonic, a Bosnian Serb arrested outside Milwaukee earlier this month who pleaded not guilty this week to making false statements, says that US officials are targeting too widely, and that the sting is sparking fears among the Serbian diaspora in the US.
"There's one lady in Salt Lake City who was a cook paid by the Republika Srpska Army. That's stretching the party to a crime concept. It seems like the [Bosnian] government wants to investigate every one of them," says Nikola Kostich, senior partner at the Milwaukee law firm Kostich, LeBell, Dobroski, & Morgan. Mr. Kostich defended several prominent Serb suspects in The Hague and has advised many of those arrested in the past 24 months.
"I've also given a lot of advice to people who have not been charged – people who have called me because they're not sleeping well, and they think there's going to be a knock on the door in the night, and they don't know what to do," he says.