Judge clears way for extradition of Roanoke County man accused of war crimes
The Roanoke Times, Va.
ROANOKE, Va. — A judge has approved the return of a Roanoke County man to his native Bosnia, where he faces charges that he tortured civilians while working as a military prison guard in the Bosnian war 21 years ago.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou on Monday certified the extradition of Almaz Nezirovic, 54, who has been held in a local jail for the past 14 months.
The ruling sends the case to the U.S. State Department, which has the final say in the matter.
Nezirovic is one of 500 to 600 former Yugoslavian people who resettled in Roanoke during the 1990s and early 2000s, said Amar Bhattarai, resettlement supervisor at the Roanoke Office of Commonwealth Catholic Charities.
Before his arrest, Nezirovic resided in Southwest Roanoke County. Married with two children, he was a homeowner and 16-year county resident who coached soccer and worked at Home Shopping Network and Virginia Transformer. But in 2011, he was charged with having lied about his military service in Bosnia when he sought the permission of U.S. immigration authorities to be in the United States.
Specifically, his indictment said he lied on his July 1997 application for refugee status that allowed him to enter the United States, on a successful 1999 application for permanent residency and on a 2004 application for U.S. citizenship, as well as during a 2006 interview about potential citizenship, by failing to detail his Bosnia war activities and abuse of prisoners.
Nezirovic faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison on those charges, which are pending but on hold.
In July 2012, with Nezirovic free on bond while the immigration issue wound its way through the courts, Bosnian authorities requested his extradition to face trial for war crimes against civilians, with which he had been charged in 2003. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia requested extradition on behalf of the Bosnian government.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, sometimes called simply Bosnia, was one of six republics of Yugoslavia, a country that collapsed along ethnic lines in the early 1990s. When Bosnia declared itself independent from Yugoslavia in 1992, ethnic Serbs inside the country responded with violence and the backing of the nearby republics of Serbia and Montenegro. Serbian forces besieged the capital, Sarajevo, and undertook ethnic cleansing campaigns targeting communities that were predominantly Muslim, the country’s dominant ethnic group at the time.
An estimated 2 million people were displaced and tens of thousands of civilians died during a civil war that raged from 1992 to 1995. The aggression by the Serbs was halted by NATO-led bombings, and the parties signed a resolution that allowed the Serbs to keep some conquered territory.
A court of law established by the United Nations, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, has been prosecuting war criminals for 20 years. Its conclusion: Participants on all sides committed war crimes.
Nezirovic, a Muslim married to a woman who is Croatian and Serbian, has testified he joined a military unit to protect his family and hometown of Derventa from Serb aggression. He supported an independent, multi-ethnic Bosnia that was tolerant of differing religions, his attorney has said. But his side was defeated and he fled soon after, he testified.
“Since I took part in the war I can’t go back there,” his immigration documents, which were filed in court, state.
Bosnian authorities say Nezirovic, a former sergeant in the Yugoslavian navy, joined the Croatian Defense Council during the armed conflict and guarded a detention camp in Derventa. There, from April to July 1992, he abused, tortured and inhumanely treated 22 Serb civilians at the camp, causing severe physical and emotional injuries, the foreign charges said.
In support of the immigration fraud case in 2011, an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement went to Bosnia to investigate Nezirovic’s past and interview alleged victims. The agent said eight identified Nezirovic by name and described torture and abuse. Three identified him from a photo lineup.
In deciding whether Nezirovic is extraditable, Ballou conducted a limited, non-criminal judicial proceeding. He ruled that Nezirovic is the person Bosnian authorities seek, that the complaint contains credible evidence that Nezirovic committed war crimes against civilians and that the United States and Bosnia have an extradition treaty covering such conduct.
But before handing over a suspected war criminal to his native country, the state department is expected to conduct a broad review of the case, taking into account issues that Ballou could not, such as how the request jibes with U.S. foreign policy considerations, whether the Bosnia court system is fair and whether Nezirovic’s safety would be in jeopardy if he were sent home.
“International extraditions are a matter of foreign affairs, not law enforcement,” Ballou wrote.
Fay Spence, an assistant federal public defender appointed to represent Nezirovic, opposes his extradition. Spence told Ballou that Nezirovic’s actions were political , a category of crime exempt from extradition.
Nezirovic’s actions weren’t political, Ballou said, recounting Nezirovic’s testimony that he took up arms out of fear and a desire to defend his family and town. Ballou said Nezirovic hadn’t participated in political or ethnic events that led to the civil war.
“The war caused Nezirovic to choose sides, and he chose to fight with the HVO, the local militia, because it was the only option to defend himself and his family. He did not enlist in the army for any deep-rooted political reason,” the ruling said.
In addition, Ballou said courts have ruled that attacking civilians can never be deemed justifiable on grounds it had a political purpose. And to Nezirovic’s statement that he thought the prisoners were soldiers from the other side, Ballou said international law requires that even detained soldiers must receive humane treatment.
Spence said Tuesday she plans to challenge Ballou’s ruling, which she described as disappointing, by filing a habeas corpus action to be ruled on by a district court judge, one step higher on the judicial ladder than Ballou. Spence said she will defend Nezirovic before the State Department if needed.
Spence said she is concerned for Nezirovic for several reasons. Most immediately, he has health issues, she said. In addition, she maintains that the extradition effort is steeped in political revenge.
Nezirovic’s homeland sits under the political control of the war’s winning side, people “who originally acquired their power by participating in inhumane ethnic cleansing strategies of the war,” Spence said in court papers.
If the United States sends Nezirovic to Bosnia, “I believe he will mysteriously show up dead,” Spence said Tuesday.
But two years ago, the international court began to wind down its affairs and transferred a number of remaining middle- and lower-level defendants back to the regional judicial systems and monitored proceedings for five years. The review found in 2010 that Bosnian courts and prosecutors “have the necessary independence, professionalism and capacity to handle complex war crimes proceedings,” the announcement said.
Nezirovic awaits the next stage of his case from a cell at the Western Virginia Regional Jail. The state department normally decides such cases within two months, but the habeas petition Spence plans to file would stop the clock.