Home > srebrenica massacre > PHOENIX: MECCA FOR SREBRENICA MASSACRE SUSPECTS

PHOENIX: MECCA FOR SREBRENICA MASSACRE SUSPECTS

March 20, 2006

PHOENIX, ARIZONA – A MECCA FOR SERBIAN SUSPECTS OF SREBRENICA GENOCIDE

U.S. officials are investigating 23 Bosnian Serb men and a woman living in Phoenix for links they might have had to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre – the worst war crime committed in Europe since the fall of Nazi Germany.
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So far, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI have arrested the 24 who were in either the Bratunac or Zvornik brigades that orchestrated the slaughter in July 1995, capturing, holding, executing, burying and re-burying the more then 8,000 Muslim men and boys.
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All 24 former soldiers have been charged with immigration violations. Some remain under investigation for possible torture charges, under a little used law that is the only way U.S. prosecutors can try suspected foreign war criminals or human rights abusers other than on immigration violations. Often they are just deported.
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War crimes investigators told Newsday while many of the soldiers were not involved directly, war crimes investigators said, the Bratunac Brigade’s MP platoon was a central cog of the killing machine.
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Throughout the United States, federal investigators and lawyers are working on about 1,000 cases of suspected human rights abusers from more than 85 countries, and they believe there are many more undiscovered suspects living in the United States.
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Mladen Blagojevic and Zdravko Bozic were soldiers in the Bratunac Brigade’s military police platoon. Until recently, they were enjoying comfortable, American lives in the quiet streets of Phoenix.
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As a result of an investigation into possible Srebrenica war criminals living in the United States that started in 2003, Bozic is in the final stages of deportation proceedings.
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After spending nearly a year in prison for immigration fraud, he is likely to be deported soon – not to his native Bosnia but to Serbia, where he is less likely to be investigated for his possible involvement in Srebrenica.
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Blagojevic, an electrician, was living until recently in a home he shared in north Phoenix with his wife and son. Since he spoke to a Newsday reporter there in November, he has moved.
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Already charged with lying about his membership in the Bosnian Serb military, he has been under investigation for his possible involvement in torture during the Srebrenica massacre, according to federal officials.
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Although never used by a prosecutor since it became law in 1994, the federal torture statute’s maximum penalty is death.
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Bozic and Blagojevic, the two former comrades in war, are not alone in Phoenix. So far, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI have arrested 24 Bosnian Serbs in Phoenix who were in either the Bratunac or Zvornik brigades at the time of the massacre. Those brigades played central roles in capturing, holding, executing, burying and re-burying the more then 8,000 Bosniak men and boys killed in July 1995.
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Investigators so far have not accumulated evidence that enables them to charge either with war crimes, but they continue to investigate Blagojevic.
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The Arizona cluster of Srebrenica soldiers is, for sheer numbers, perhaps the starkest example yet of the wider phenomenon of foreign war crimes suspects finding sanctuary in the affluent anonymity of America’s cities and suburbs. Federal investigators and lawyers are working on about 1,000 cases of suspected human rights abusers from more than 85 countries – and they believe there are many more undiscovered suspects living in the United States.
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While prosecutors are often successful in briefly jailing and then deporting suspects, many are frustrated at what they consider gaps in the law, leaving them unable to pursue the suspects for their original crimes rather than for immigration violations.
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Some human rights activists suspect the one law prosecutors do have in their arsenal – the 1994 torture statute – will remain unused under any Bush administration attorney general, given the administration’s own entanglements in torture controversies.
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Some federal officials and human rights activists fear the situation has given the United States a global reputation as a soft-touch sanctuary for people just like the 24 Bosnian Serb suspects in Arizona. All 24 former soldiers, including one woman, have been charged with immigration violations and some remain under investigation for possible torture charges, the only way U.S. prosecutors can try foreign war criminals or human rights abusers with a crime in the United States other than immigration violations.
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A Bosnian Serb Army payroll document dated February 1995 and obtained by Newsday lists both men’s names on the platoon roster of 33 men. Investigators confirmed the men told federal authorities they were in the platoon and in the area at the time of the massacre. A source close to the case said federal investigators possess Bosnian Serb Army logs that place Bozic at key locations and times during the atrocities.
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Bozic pleaded guilty in November 2004 to one charge of immigration fraud and one of perjury, essentially admitting he had lied to U.S. immigration authorities about his military service. In the plea, he acknowledges: “During July 1995, I was a member of the Military Police for the Bratunac Brigade of the VRS and worked in and around Bratunac and Potocari.”
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It was in Potocari that the men and boys were separated from the women and children. The men were held in Bratunac before their mass murder. Many soldiers guarding the prisoners there at that time committed murder and acts of torture before the majority of the prisoners were bused to their execution sites, according to the few survivors of the killings and the testimony of former Bosnian Serb commanders during their own war crimes trials.
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Mevludin Oric was one of a handful of men held in the buses overnight in Bratunac to survive the mass executions that followed. He now lives in a rundown village outside Sarajevo, his nights torn apart by memories of the terror he faced in Bratunac as the MPs guarded his bus.
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The Serb soldiers were “laughing, singing Chetnik songs,” he said in an interview at a village cafe in December.
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“They were firing above the buses. We were on the bus. We couldn’t hear directly what they were saying but they were clearly pleased … there was a Serb I recognized from school in Srebrenica. He got on the bus and started beating me. He demanded that I get off the bus so that he could kill me.”
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Another of the very few survivors of the massacre, Hurem Suljic, who is believed to be living as a protected witness in the United States, told journalists after the massacre that the Serb soldiers in Bratunac tortured and killed dozens of prisoners.
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Was it possible, Oric was asked, for a Serb soldier to be in Bratunac and not understand what was happening to the Muslim men and boys? No, he said. “All of them were killing. They were praying to God to give them a chance to kill someone. There were so many drunk soldiers in front of the bus demanding the MPs let them kill us.”
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Neither Bozic nor Blagojevic has acknowledged committing war crimes. Bozic’s plea agreement includes admissions of guilt in relation to immigration charges only. Blagojevic told Newsday in an interview he had done nothing wrong.
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But at the United Nations war crimes court in The Hague, commanders of the Bratunac Brigade and other units involved in the Srebrenica massacre have described in some detail what Blagojevic and Bozic’s platoon was doing at the time.
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Momir Nikolic, a former neighbor of Blagojevic as well as chief of intelligence and security of the Bratunac Brigade, pleaded guilty in May 2003 at the UN tribunal to a crime against humanity for his role in the massacre. As part of his plea agreement, he gave a statement of facts.
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On July 12, he said, the platoon helped with “the separation and detention of able-bodied Muslim men” from the women and children at the Dutch UN peacekeepers’ base in Potocari.
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Thousands of terrified Bosniaks gathered there from Srebrenica to seek protection from the outnumbered Dutch soldiers as the Bosnian Serb Army seized control of the UN safe area around Srebrenica.
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That day the Serb forces there, he said, “abused and assaulted many Muslim men and women … I also heard that some Muslim men were taken to isolated areas around Potocari and killed.”
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Nikolic also described the MP platoon’s participation in guarding prisoners, noting: “It was reported to me that approximately 80 to 100 Muslims were murdered in the hangar near the Vuk Karadzic school in Bratunac” on July 13.
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“Their bodies were deposited over a hillside and covered with dirt.” He did not specify which unit did the killing.
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At one point Nikolic told of how he and a soldier in the MP platoon, Mile Petrovic – whose name is also on the payroll document obtained by Newsday – took six Bosniak men prisoner. Soon after, he said, Petrovic told him that he had killed the men in “revenge for my brother,” according to the statement.
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In an interview in a country in the former Yugoslavia, a former Serbian paramilitary who was based in Bratunac for much of the Bosnian war said he was familiar with the activities of the platoon.
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“If you want to know whether they [the MP unit] were shooting Srebrenicans in ’95, yes,” said the former paramilitary, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said he did not know either Blagojevic or Bozic by name.
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Last week another former Bosnian Serb soldier recalled in an interview with Newsday what he had witnessed at the Vuk Karadzic school. He spoke with numerous expletives, which have been deleted and, as he spoke, in a bar on the border between Bosnia and Montenegro, his hands shook so much he had to put his cigarette in an ashtray before it was finished.
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As is common with Serbs, he referred to Muslims as “Turks” [which is considered highly derogatory term for Bosniaks (Bosnia’s Muslims)]
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“I let inside two military policemen . They were holding a Turk while a civilian came with pliers and was breaking up his toes with pliers. I said what was that and he told me it wasn’t my … business … The sergeant told me that they came to avenge his brother that mujahedeen had killed … I couldn’t bear the screams. I would never do such a thing.
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“There were others going into the hall and shouting Turk names … Some Turks were beaten to death and others were left bleeding. Corpses had to be dragged away. The school was littered with blood. And the children attend the school now. I would vomit to be taken there again.”
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The timing of the Srebrenica massacre is highly relevant to possible torture charges because it allows prosecutors to indict those involved. Passed in November 1994, the torture statute does not cover crimes committed before that date.
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So while Bozic will soon be deported, Blagojevic is still under investigation.”We’re still working evidence,” one official said. “The option exists because of the time frame of the events and everything else. If the evidence allows us to do that, that will be a consideration. And I suspect that’s something the U.S. attorney out there will buy.”
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In an interview in October, Paul Charlton, the U.S. attorney for the district of Arizona, said he would want to prosecute a torture case if he had sufficient evidence.
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“If torture had been there in terms of proof, we would have gone forward with a torture case,” he said. “What we have here in Arizona are individuals who may or may not have been involved in torture.”
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Charlton said he has devoted considerable time and resources to investigating the Bosnian Serb suspects and sent an assistant U.S. attorney, together with an FBI agent, an ICE agent and an expert witness, to visit prosecutors in The Hague to collect evidence.
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The same team had tried earlier to find witnesses among the large Bosniak immigrant population of St. Louis, showing Srebrenica survivors photographs of the former soldiers arrested in Phoenix.
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More FBI and ICE investigators sought witnesses and evidence in many U.S. cities and, according to other sources, in Bosnia.
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Investigators and translators from the Srebrenica team of the prosecutor’s office in The Hague came to Arizona to assist in the investigation and help interview the first four suspects arrested, including Bozic. In spite of the efforts, Charlton and his team did not come up with evidence that Bozic and Blagojevic had been involved in war crimes.
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“In this particular case, ICE used every legal remedy available against Mr. Bozic, ultimately resulting in a one-year prison sentence and his removal order from the United States,” said a spokesman for the Human Rights Violators and Public Safety Unit, the office in Immigration and Customs Enforcement that seeks out foreign war criminals and human rights abusers living in the United States.
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“It is our hope that any allegations of war crimes lodged against Mr. Bozic, if substantiated, will be fully prosecuted by the proper tribunal.” But if Bozic does make it to Serbia, he almost certainly will be beyond the reach of the Bosnian State Court, which handles war crimes trials in Bosnia. Officials there say it is almost unthinkable that Serbia would extradite anyone to Bosnia – and if Bozic becomes a Serbian citizen, it would be illegal.
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Federal investigators told Newsday they believe there are more former soldiers from the Bosnian Serb Army who may have been involved in the Srebrenica massacre and are now living in the United States. They declined to give numbers.
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“We have people here who may have lied to enter the United States,” Charlton said. “We have people here we’re prosecuting who may be able to provide us with information that would lead us to other individuals who are involved in this. So the investigation is ongoing because of both of those concerns.”
  1. Anonymous
    March 31, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    And what about Nasar Oric’s Muslim soldiers who committed atrocities against local serb populations near Srebenica while it was supposed to be a safe haven. He launched attacks from the so called safe area and was killing serb civilians. It wasnt until AFTER that event that the Serbs took Srebenica over. I do not deny that the genocide to place, but we should learn from history and try to understand WHY it happened. Had the international forces enforced the safe area and demilitarized it, Nasar Oric would not have been able to launch the initial attacks and the Serbs would have had no reason to retalliate. I do not condone the actions of either party. But facts are facts. As an American who has no bias towards either side, I think it is important to stop the propaganda on ALL sides.

  2. Daniel
    April 1, 2009 at 3:33 am

    Response to Anonymous:

    You failed to mention that Serbs stationed in villages around Srebrenica never demilitarized, even though they were required to demilitarize as per the demilitarization agreement. Militarized Serb-held villages around Srebrenica had served as bases from which Serbs launched military attacks on the Enclave – killing Bosnian Muslim civilians at will.

    You also failed to mention that between 1991 and 1995 (before Srebrenica genocide), Serbs in villages around Srebrenica killed approximately 1,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) civilians, torched Muslim villages, and committed mass scale ethnic cleansing and murders in the Podrinje region.

    Another fact you failed to mention concerns the fate of other “safe areas” in Bosnia, which had been under constant attacks by Serbs. Remember Sarajevo? Remember Gorazde? Remember Bihac?

    What about Serb attrocities around Srebrenica in the same period (1991-1995)? Have you ever thought about that? Please answer this question.

    Srebrenica genocide was not a retaliation of Serbs for alleged “earlier crimes against the Serbs” as some genocide justifiers endlessly repeat. Here is a short excerpt from United Nations’ General Assembly Resolution 53/35 that addresses your claim more properly than I can ever could [full text], quote:

    “A third accusation leveled at the Bosniak defenders of Srebrenica is that they provoked the Serb offensive by attacking out of that safe area. Even though this accusation is often repeated by international sources, there is no credible evidence to support it. Dutchbat personnel on the ground at the time assessed that the few ‘raids’ the Bosniaks mounted out of Srebrenica were of little or no military significance. These raids were often organized in order to gather food, as the Serbs had refused access for humanitarian convoys into the enclave. Even Serb sources approached in the context of this report acknowledged that the Bosniak forces in Srebrenica posed no significant military threat to them. The biggest attack the Bosniaks launched out of Srebrenica during the more than two years which is was designated a safe area appears to have been the raid on the village of Visnjica, on 26 June 1995, in which several houses were burned, up to four Serbs were killed and approximately 100 sheep were stolen. In contrast, the Serbs overran the enclave two weeks later, driving tens of thousands from their homes, and summarily executing thousands of men and boys. The Serbs repeatedly exaggerated the extent of the raids out of Srebrenica as a pretext for the prosecution of a central war aim: to create geographically contiguous and ethnically pure territory along the Drina, while freeing their troops to fight in other parts of the country. The extent to which this pretext was accepted at face value by international actors and observers reflected the prism of “moral equivalency” through which the conflict in Bosnia was viewed by too many for too long.” (end quote)

    My heart goes to all victims, but you cannot justify Srebrenica genocide simply by pointing that Naser Oric’s soldiers committed individual war crimes against the Serbs in militarized Serb-held villages. Did you expect Naser Oric to sit quiet in Srebrenica while Serbs terrorized more than 100,000 Bosniaks in Podrinje region, torched Muslim villages, killed and raped Muslim civilians and women, blocked humanitarian convoys from entering Srebrenica, and attacked the enclave with heavy artillery and killing Srebrenica civilians at will? Here is a short excerpt from the ICTY judgment(Naser Oric appeal see here, that addresses your allegations, quote:

    “Any criminal responsibility of Naser Orić was offset by the real and present necessity to acquire food for the survival of the population of Srebrenica. Having recognised that the defence of necessity was an established principle in customary international law in 1992 and 1993, the Trial Chamber considered the extraordinary humanitarian circumstances in Srebrenica at the time. It thus found that there was abundant evidence that Srebrenica was isolated, that the starving population was drastically increasing with the influx of refugees and that there had been repeated calls for help.” (end quote)

    And finally, I also wish to reiterate that I do not consider Naser Oric “a hero,” – as some readers suggested – because he abandoned people of Srebrenica when they needed him most. However, my personal opinion of him is irrelevant.

  3. Owen
    April 1, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Anonymous, I can’t speak with the same authority as you. But the ICTY’s judgment was that the most notable atrocities committed during raids on surrounding villages were perpetrated by the hundreds of desperate civilians who followed Oric’s forces in search of food supplies. These were hungry people who had already seen their own family and neighbours slaughtered in the cleansing of the Drina Valley before enduring the privations and bombardments of living in Srebrenica under siege. You don’t deny the genocide. You say you don’t condone the actions of either party. But you do seem to be attempting to be trying to provide a justification for genocide. I think you need to use your judgment to distinguish between the balance of propaganda and the balance of fact.

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