Deportation Ordered for Serbian Who Lied About War Crimes
Homeland pursuing 160 active cases, following 1,750 leads involving human-rights violators
A Serbian man who lied about his participation in war crimes during the Bosnian conflict will be deported, the Department of Homeland Security reported Thursday.
Ilija Josipovic, a 59-year-old man who had been living in Akron, Ohio, pleaded guilty Tuesday to obtaining immigration documents by fraud. A federal judge in Ohio sentenced him to eight months of house arrest. After that, he will be deported, according to Homeland Security officials.
“He does not deserve the protections and rights of a U.S. citizen when his conduct flew in the face of our nation’s founding ideals.”
“This defendant hid the fact that he was a member of a unit involved in atrocities in the former Yugoslavia,” Acting U.S. Attorney David A. Sierleja said in a prepared statement. “He does not deserve the protections and rights of a U.S. citizen when his conduct flew in the face of our nation’s founding ideals.”
According to federal authorities, Josipovic failed to disclose his military service in the Zvornik Infantry Brigade of the Army of the Republic of Srpska when he applied for residency in the United States in 2002. Authorities said that unit is implicated in persecution and genocide in and around Srebrenica, Bosnia, in July 1995.
Soldiers executed about 8,000 men and boys, and violently expelled 30,000 women and children from the U.N. Safe Area in 1995 after Yugoslavia broke apart.
Josipovic is the latest person convicted of immigrating under false pretenses and hiding participation in human-rights abuses, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. ICE said that since 2003, more than 380 people have been charged with federal crimes.
Another 785 people tied to human-rights violations during that time frame have been deported or ordered deported. An additional 108 people left voluntarily after federal agents opened investigations.
And it does not appear that the pipeline will run dry anytime soon. Authorities said Homeland Security has more than 160 active probes into suspected human-rights violators. Homeland Security officials said investigators are pursuing another 1,750 leads related to suspected human-rights violators from 95 different countries.
Steve Francis, the acting special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations office in Detroit, vowed to continue to pursue those cases aggressively.
“The United States will never serve as a place of refuge for individuals seeking to distance themselves from their pasts,” he said in a statement. “HSI will continue to use its unique authorities to ensure that alleged war criminals are brought to justice.”
The numbers stun even people who closely follow immigration.
“That’s amazing,” said Jessica Vaughan, who served as a foreign service officer at the State Department. “I had no idea. Even I’m surprised by that.”
Many of the cases involve people who came from the former Yugoslavia, but some immigration experts see parallels to the current debate over accepting refugees from Syria and other terrorism-compromised countries in the Middle East and Africa.
“I would say it’s exactly the same,” said Matthew O’Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
O’Brien, who previously served as chief of the National Security Division within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said immigrants coming from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Syria today pose significant challenges to U.S. authorities trying to conduct background checks.
O’Brien said it is extremely difficult to verify information on immigration forms when a non-functioning government — or a hostile government — exists in the country from which the applicant is coming. He said authorities processing those applications tend to have a bias in favor of approving them. This, he added, is the result favored by the State Department, which is tasked with maintaining good relations with foreign governments.
“That’s the problem with the whole refugee and asylum system,” he said. “The diplomatic interests of the country have been made superior to the security interests of the people of the United States.”
Vaughan, now director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said procedures to scrutinize people from war-torn areas get better. But there is a limit to what can be accomplished, she said.
"People who have never done vetting always have a lot more confidence in our ability to vet," she said.
O'Brien said it is a "real nightmare" to meet the burden of rescinding citizenship once it has been granted.
Before joining FAIR last year, O'Brien said, he worked on a similar case. A 10-year-effort involving multiple agencies ended in October when Ratko Maslenjak and his wife, Divna Maslenjak, returned to Serbia. According to ICE officials, the couple fraudulently immigrated to the U.S. in 2000. Ratko Maslenjak became a legal permanent resident in 2004, and Divna Maslenjak became an American citizen in 2006.
The following year, prosecutors won a conviction against Ratko Maslenjak. In 2014, authorities also convicted Divna Maslenjak. The couple had failed to disclose Ratko Maslenjak's involvement in the Bratunac Brigade, a military unit implicated in the brutal persecution and massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims.
O'Brien said that case came to light when police investigating alleged drug activity came across a secret room in the couple's Cleveland-area home. That room contained evidence related to the Bratunac Brigade.
"It was a phenomenal story of great law enforcement," he said. "It was like something out of the movies."