interview 13 Feb 17

America’s Hidden Bosnian War Criminals Face Determined Foe

Michael MacQueen, who tracks down Bosnian war crimes suspects in the US, looks back on years of bringing human rights violators to justice in the face of complex court procedures and delays.

Eleanor Rose BIRN Sarajevo
Graves of victims of the Srebrenica massacres. Photo: Michael Büker.

“It’s never the same,” Michael MacQueen, senior historian at the US government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, says of interviewing war crimes suspects.

“Sometimes you find people who have very little resistance, who clearly have been carrying those things on their conscience, and rather quickly begin to spill,” he adds.

Although he admits his skin has become “slightly calloused” over decades of investigating war crimes cases, these face-to-face reckonings can still stir feelings in the 67-year-old.

“In some cases you find people who not only are not ashamed of what they did, but they are still proud of it, and are very defiant,” he explained, “and that can produce sometimes a rather testy confrontation.”

And then others are even worse.

“I’ve run into more than my share of persons who could only be defined as sociopaths, for whom the war was an opportunity to act out on the fundamental flaws in their psychological constructs,” he said.

MacQueen is mulling a heavy caseload for 2017, which includes about 300 people from the Balkans.

Most are immigrants suspected of concealing their involvement in the wars of 1992 to 1995 when they entered the US, primarily from Bosnia, but sometimes from Croatia – often under the cover of refugee status – in the late 1990s or early 2000s.

His days vary. Apart from confronting suspects, “to see what they have too say for themselves,” some days are consumed by travel, or poring through records in cramped prosecutors’ offices in Sarajevo during a trip to the field – a task “more demanding of ‘sitzfleisch’ than creativity”.

Part of a team of three people at ICE working specifically on Balkan human rights violations, the cases span the length and breadth of the US.

An isolated case or two could be found in Washington State, for example. Many more have been uncovered in places that became the main havens for refugees, such as St Louis, Missouri, now home to tens of thousands of Bosnian immigrants.

Under US law, immigration regulations are the main weapon for tackling war crimes suspects from abroad, and the ICE team uses two “bags of tools”.

The first is to cooperate with federal prosecution offices to issue indictments for immigration fraud, pursuing those cases in the criminal courts, while the other is deportation proceedings, an administrative mechanism that operates outside the criminal code.

Closing a case is rarely simple.

It took more than a decade to deport one married couple, former Bosnian Serb military officer Ratko Maslenjak and his wife Divna, who were separately convicted in Cleveland, Ohio, of lying to attain status to stay in the US when they immigrated in 2000.

A ten-year investigation by ICE agencies found that the pair repeatedly failed to disclose and blatantly lied to immigration officials about Ratko’s extensive service in the notorious Bratunac Brigade, a military unit implicated in assisting in the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-5 conflict.

Ratko was found guilty of immigration fraud back in 2007, whereas Divna was convicted of naturalisation fraud in 2014 – but it was not until September 30, 2016, that they were both finally repatriated.

The ICE’s pace of work is constrained by limited time and resources; MacQueen pays for his BIRN premium subscription, for example, from his private funds.

Cooperating with a fractured justice system in Bosnia – including police forces at the level of the state, two entities and ten cantons, “without whom our task would be hopeless indeed,” is complex, MacQueen said.

War crimes are still sensitive topics in Bosnia, where silence hides the evidence that would convict some perpetrators, and cases become politicised.

Bosnian law enforcement has also been rocked by the case against suspended state prosecutor Goran Salihovic, who vowed to tackle war crimes when he was appointed in 2013, but is facing proceedings at the Office of Disciplinary Council in Sarajevo after being accused of abusing his position to close down cases linked to Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik.

Meanwhile, US courts face their own problems, notably in Arizona, in whose capital, Phoenix, there is a large Bosnian community but which is overstretched by other kinds of immigration cases because it shares a border with Mexico.

Bottlenecks at court mean some wait years to even be presented to judges.

In 2015 the New York Times reported that 12 Bosnian Serbs facing deportation for alleged war crimes – some in connection with the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, in which more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed – were awaiting court proceedings set for 2019, having been made eligible for deportation by a series of orders way back in 2013.

But immigration infrastructure in Arizona could face new shocks from work planned by President Donald Trump, who issued a series of directives in recent weeks to crack down on illegal migration – and has moved to end the “catch and release” policy of the former administration, in which immigrants were released pending hearings.

Meanwhile, official data suggests that illegal border crossings from Mexico saw an uptick this winter, with agents apprehending 136,670 people as they crossed in the last three months of 2016 – the highest figure for the year-end quarter since 2008.

“We hope that the new [Trump] administration will expand the number of immigration judges and increase the capacity of the immigration courts,” MacQueen said of the situation in Arizona.

Apart from court delays, meeting the evidence threshold required in US courts requires painstaking work, drawing on a “constellation of available information”, according to MacQueen.

Using a wide range of resources ranging from judgments passed in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, to witness statements old and new, as well as fresh documents obtained by police, MacQueen uses as broad a base of evidence as possible.

“Part of my task is to be able to build cases by assembling collections of documents that cross-corroborate each other,” he said.

MacQueen studied ethnic conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe at college, then spent 20 years investigating Nazi Holocaust crimes in Lithuania, including the open-air mass shootings of tens of thousands of men, women and children – helping US authorities expel 60 “hands-on perpetrators”.

The immigration agency’s dedicated war crimes section opened in 2008, more than a decade after 120,000 Bosnian refugees filed for residency in the US following the end of the war in 1995.

Although uncovering events that took place years ago is a challenging task, MacQueen does not see an end date to the bureau’s work.

“From a personal perspective, I’m just completely offended by the notion that people should commit these horrible crimes and then enjoy impunity and a new life in a country of opportunity,” he said of his decades dealing with the heavy subject matter.

He added: “There are only so many refugee visas available in any given year, which means that people who came here who committed these acts in the former Yugoslavia denied genuine refugees a chance at a new life.”

Many of those facing deportation insist that they are innocent – and some lawyers have accused ICE officials of pursuing those who were merely present in war but had no hand in war crimes.

Media reported one case, for instance, in which a Bosnian Serb said he appeared to have played a military role but in reality only drove a truck in the war.

MacQueen does not discuss individual cases. For him, when considering what constitutes involvement in a human rights violation, one must bear in mind the complex web of participants who take part in operations.

“[In Srebrenica], there were literally thousands of men deployed in the field, each with a task to fulfill,” he said, citing one example.

“Some were engaged in sweeping the terrain, trying to round up or kill the stragglers from the Srebrenica column. Others were tasked with playing security roles during the collection and expulsion of the women and children from [the UN base at] Potocari.

“Others were tasked with the military attack on the UN safe area itself,” he added.

“That responsibility and culpability – particularly regarding that culpability as being material under our reading of the immigration laws in the US – that responsibility is personal, and it does attach to each and every participant,” MacQueen said.

Looking to the year ahead, 2017 promises a long list of tasks and trips to bring possible human rights violators to justice.

At the same time, MacQueen suggested that he may soon lay down his heavy burden.

“I’m 67 now and I’m starting to see the handwriting on the wall that there may be other things that I might like to do while I’m still young and vital,” he said.

He would like to spend time alone in Bihac and Velika Kladusa in northwest Bosnia – “an absolutely enchanting part of the country” – and visit Mostar with his wife.

He will not dwell on this work. “I’ve been asked if I plan to write a book about these cases and the work I’ve done,” he said.

“I always demurred and said, ‘No, when this work is over I’m going to walk away. And that’s gonna be the end of it.’ ”

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