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Jury weighs immigration case linked to Bosnian war crimes

For nearly a decade, Zeljko Savija melded into the Buffalo  community, working as a truck driver and living with his wife and two kids in the suburbs.

All of that changed in 2012 when Savija, a Serbian from Bosnia, was charged with lying about his service in a police force with ties to war crimes in order to gain entry to the United States as a refugee.

Investigators say there is no evidence that Savija, 51, was involved in human rights abuses or war crimes, but the "ethnic cleansing" that took place in Bosnia during the 1990s is at the heart of his federal court trial.

His case went to the jury Tuesday.

"What we have is just another family, like millions of others, who were victims of this war," Robert J. Pavich, one if Savija's defense lawyers, told the jury. "They were refugees scrambling with other refugees to survive."

Since Day One of the trial, Pavich has portrayed Savija as a victim, not a criminal, but prosecutors claim the Savija they know is a liar.

They point to immigration applications and other documents to suggest that the Town of Tonawanda man misled the government about his service in the Special Police Brigade, his status as a refugee and, finally, his employment history.

"I counted them," said Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian J. Counihan. "I think there were eight lies."

Charged with using a fraudulent green card to enter the United Staes, Savija is accused of trying to hide or minimize his involvement with the Serbian-led army and special police as part of a plan to relocate his family here 14 years ago.

He is also accused of lying about his residence in order to qualify as a refugee, a crucial step in gaining entry to theAmeirca. He claims he was forced to leave Bosnia for Serbia.

"He did not meet the definition," Counihan told the jury Tuesday.

Savija's prosecution is the result of a nationwide investigation targeting Bosnians  immigration authorities believe are former soldiers and police officers who lied about their service and are now living here.

At last count, more than 150 have been charged and targeted for deportation.

Throughout the trial before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara, defense lawyers have challenged the credibility of the government’s case, suggesting it is "misdirected" and "misguided."

They point to the investigation's origin as a probe into war crimes and claim the immigration fraud prosecution is nothing but an attempt to save face.

"The government has this case totally upside down," said Pavich.

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.

Pavich and defense attorney Rodney O. Personius 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.

The jury resumes deliberations on Wednesday.


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