Halfway across the world, in a downtown Buffalo courtroom, “ethnic cleansing” in war-torn Bosnia is the backdrop in the trial of a Town of Tonawanda truck driver.
Zeljko Savija, a husband and father of two grown kids, is accused of lying about his involvement with Serbian military and police forces in order to enter the United States as a refugee 14 years ago.
Prosecutors say Savija, now 51, served in groups linked to human rights abuses and war crimes in Bosnia, most notably the 1995 slaughter of 8,000 unarmed men and boys at Srebrenica.
Charged with using a fraudulent green card to enter the United States, Savija is accused of trying to hide or minimize his involvement with the Serbian-led army and special police as part of plan to gain safe haven here.
“What this case is about is lies,” Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian J. Counihan said in his opening statement to the jury last week.
Savija is not accused of any involvement in the killings at Srebenica or any other Serbian-led atrocity, and the federal agent in charge of his case testified last week that he never saw “any evidence” that Savija was involved in war crimes.
Throughout the trial before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, Savija’s defense lawyers have challenged the credibility of the government’s case, suggesting it is a biased and misdirected attempt to save face after their war crimes investigation turned up nothing.
A federal agent acknowledged on the stand last week that the immigration fraud charges against Savija are rooted in what began as a war crimes probe.
“They worked on this investigation for years. Nothing,” Robert J. Pavich, one of Savija’s degense lawyers, told the jury last week. “Just another guy caught up in the civil war.”
Savija’s prosecution is the result of a nationwide investigation targeting Bosnians who immigration authorities believe are former soldiers and police officers who lied about their service and are now living openly in the United States.
At last count, more than 150 have been charged and targeted for deportation.
Some of the government’s more high-profile prosecutions, most notably the case of Almaz Nezirovic, a Serbian refugee in Roanoke, Va., have earned it praise. Nezirovic, 55, a former Serbian prison guard, was arrested in 2012 on charges of abusing prisoners at a detention facility.
The Homeland Security campaign also has raised the public profile of one of its chief investigators - an historian at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and one of the major players in the Savija investigation.
Before joining ICE eight years ago, Michael MacQueen investigated war criminals connected to the Holocaust as part of his job with the U.S. Justice Department. He speaks several languages, travels frequently to meet with law enforcement officials in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, and testified last week in Buffalo as an expert.
For about two hours, he took the jury through the complex and brutal ethnic dispute that erupted between Serbs, Croats and Muslims after the break up of Yugoslavia, and the bloodletting all three sides took part in during the 1990s.
“The Serbs upped the ante,” he said at one point, “including taking United Nations peacekeepers and using them as human shields.”
MacQueen also testified about Savija’s involvement with the Special Police Brigade, which he described as a Serbian-led, rapid-response combat force. He said records indicate Savija was a sergeant and that he served in combat before resigning in 2001.
“He’s clearly viewed as a valuable member of the force,” MacQueen said of the records documenting Savija’s service.
MacQueen has yet to face cross examination, but defense lawyers have made it clear they view him as biased and over zealous. It’s an allegation defendants in other cases across the country have made against the ICE historian.
“He is not the disinterested witness the government suggested he is,” defense lawyer Rodney O. Personius told Arcara last week.
Personius and Pavich have painted a far different profile of Savija, a profile of a victim, not a criminal. They claim federal agents talked about using the immigration status of Savija’s wife or opening a parallel immigration case against Savija as a way of pressuring him.
They also claim Savija was the one who was “ethnically cleansed” during the civil war that pitted Serbs against Croats and Muslims. His wife may testify about their life during the war.
“They were forced to leave the family home which they had owned for three generations,” Pavich told the jury. “For the next seven years, the family lived the life of refugees.”
In Savija’s case, the allegation is that he lied on an immigration application by omitting any mention of his service in the Special Police Brigade.
Throughout the trial, Counihan and prosecutor Stephanie O. Lamarque have argued that Savija knew his police service might raise a red flag and affect his ability to stay in the United States.
Savija’s lawyers have countered by suggesting the question on the application, which asks about military service, not police service, was ambiguous and confusing, especially for a non-English speaking refugee relying on an interpreter.
They also went out of their way to assure the jury that their client, despite his service in the special police, was never involved in any killings or other atrocities.
Mark T. Haggerty, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, testified about his initial encounter with Savija in 2011 - he was interviewed in his garage in Tonawanda - and the defendant’s answers to questions about where he was during the summer of 1995 when the massacre at Srebrenica took place.
“He said he was out of the military and selling ice cream in Montenagro,” Haggerty told the jury.
During the civil war in Bosnia, there was no shortage of atrocities. But, more than any other, Srebrenica came to symbolize its brutality.
In what the United Nations called the worst act of genocide on European soil since World War II, Serbian separatist forces attacked the small valley community in eastern Bosnia, home to about 40,000 mostly Muslim refugees.
During the assault, about a thousand refugees were hunted down and killed right away. The rest, about 7,000 men and boys, were later executed and dumped into mass graves.
Savija’s trial continues Monday.