US, Bosnia catch up on war criminal prosecutions

NEW YORK — A former Boston resident who took part in the mass execution of 1,200 Bosnian civilians in the worst war crime in Europe since World War II was deported from the United States on Tuesday and arrested by Bosnian police on arrival in Sarajevo Wednesday.

Marko Boskic will now face war crimes charges, including a possible charge of genocide, for his part in the Srebrenica massacre, during which Bosnian Serb forces murdered 8,000 Muslim men.

Boskic was sentenced to 63 months in a U.S. prison in November 2006 for immigration fraud — essentially, he had lied to immigration officials about his war record. Normally people convicted of immigration fraud are given small sentences before being deported, but federal prosecutors pushed the judge in the Boskic case to give him a much longer sentence. At that time federal investigators and prosecutors were not convinced that the Bosnian judicial system was up to the job of prosecuting Boskic. The country’s war crimes court had just been set up and was flooded with cases and short on experience. The court is now fully operational and Boskic will join four other members of his former unit on trial.

The Boskic case illustrates a significant shift in how both Bosnia and the United States are dealing with the men who turned parts of Bosnia into a slaughterhouse. Reporting on the Boskic case in 2006 for Newsday, I visited the family of one of the men killed by Boskic and his colleagues. Emina Hidic’s two brothers were murdered by the 10th Sabotage Detachment. I told her that it was possible that after Boskic had served some time in an American prison for immigration fraud that he could be flown home and released.

“That says everything about the state of justice here,” Hidic told me as we sat in her quiet apartment in Sarajevo. “I absolutely have no words. Really outrageous.”

Days of reckoning for most victims seemed elusive in Bosnia. I traveled to Bratunac, a Serb-dominated town where many of the alleged killers of nearby Srebrenica still lived — sometimes next door to the relatives of people they had murdered. No one in the town, Serb or Muslim, seemed to think there was much of a threat from the Bosnian war crimes court and its prosecutors.

That perception changed soon after. I visited Bratunac the following year, after the court had increased its Srebrenica-related caseload, and people I spoke to, both Muslim and Serb, agreed that the court was beginning to prove its power.

In the United States, a country foreign-born war criminals and human rights abusers have traditionally come to because of its large immigrant populations and its lax war crimes laws, there is a newfound commitment to finding and prosecuting foreign human rights abusers and killers. Much of this effort is headed up by two units within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which are devoted to finding, prosecuting and deporting foreign-born war criminals living in the United States. (There are also new war crimes laws passed by Congress in recent years to give prosecutors more tools in court.)

In January, for example, ICE deported 45-year-old former Milwaukee resident Nedjo Ikonic to Bosnia, where he is now facing charges of genocide for his role in the Srebrenica massacre. In November 2008 the Bosnian war crimes court sentenced former Phoenix resident Mladen Blagojevic to seven years in prison for his role in the massacre.

Men who have done evil are sometimes disconcertingly likeable. I interviewed Blagojevic on his front porch in 2006 after his arrest and before he was flown in handcuffs from the United States. He was polite, pleasant and thoughtful. He was a respected soccer referee and clearly a devoted father to his then 8-year-old son, who also came to the door. “I came for my son,” Blagojevic explained to me as he blew cigarette smoke into the warm night air. “To give him future.”

There is little evidence to suggest that Boskic has Blagojevic’s charm. In 1996, Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Neuffer interviewed Boskic in a cafe in the Bosnian town of Bjieljina. Neuffer described the encounter in her book published in 2001, two years before she died in an accident in Iraq. “Like any city tough,” she wrote, “his hands are jammed into his pants pockets and his muscular shoulders strain at the seams of his cheap black leather jacket. But when he looks at me, his eyes are as empty of expression as pure glass.”

Neuffer asked Boskic why he had taken part in the mass executions. “Would you like to get whacked?” Boskic asked her. “I want you to forget this street and this restaurant. It doesn’t exist any more for you. Don’t come looking for me any more. I cannot guarantee the safety of your lives.”