ELUSIVE JUSTICE: MARKO BOSKIC, A MAN WHO GUNNED DOWN 1,200 SREBRENICA BOSNIAKS
WAR CRIMINALS IN THE U.S.
10 years ago, Marko Boskic allegedly helped murder thousands in Bosnia. Now living in the U.S., his crimes may go unpunished
BY MATTHEW McALLESTER
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- There are only female voices to be heard in Emina Hidic's apartment. Her mother gasps and sobs as she tells her decade-old story of a place called Srebrenica. Hidic's 12-year-old daughter speaks quietly, sweetly. She has grown up in a family robbed of its men, in a home where sadness lingers like a permanent scent.
But on an evening in mid-December, news from America made Hidic suddenly smile.
One of the eight men who lined up her two brothers and about 1,200 other Muslim boys and men in a field in Bosnia during its civil war more than 10 years ago and then shot them dead was in custody in Massachusetts, a Newsday reporter told her.
She smelled justice at last. The United States had Marko Boskic, one of the killers of the Srebrenica massacre, the worst war crime committed in Europe since the end of World War II.
"They should condemn him for the crime," said Hidic, 33, sitting in the living room of the apartment she shares with her mother and daughter in a suburb of this still war-scarred city. Framed photographs of her murdered brothers sat on shelves. Her husband also is missing, presumed to be among the more than 7,000 murdered during the entire Srebrenica massacre. "It is already known [Boskic] was one of the ones killing."
In December, Boskic was facing only immigration charges, but it was still possible the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts could file the much more serious charge of torture - a federal crime that carries the death penalty for acts of torture overseas that have led to death. But on Jan. 10, the U.S. attorney's office filed a one-sentence status report in U.S. District Court in Boston, explaining that "it is not the government's intention to seek a superseding indictment in this matter."
When told in January that the United States did not intend to charge Boskic with any crime other than lying to immigration authorities - if convicted he is likely to be sentenced to time served and would face deportation proceedings - Hidic was at first silent on the telephone from Sarajevo.
Then she spoke. "That is outrageous. I have no words to express what I feel," she said. "So he will be let go after he had killed so many people? Is that for real? Terrifying."
Complicated road to justice
Since then, Bosnian prosecutors and U.S. federal authorities have begun discussing how to try Boskic in Bosnia. This week, a Department of Homeland Security agent traveled to Sarajevo to help the new Bosnian State Court for War Crimes prepare an extradition request. But officials warn such requests are complicated and not guaranteed to succeed in U.S. courts. The agent also looked at case files that might relate to suspects living in the United States, a source said.
And while Boskic may ultimately face justice in Bosnia, the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute him thus far for torture means there is unlikely to be a precedent-setting case and therefore, some officials say, no deterrent message for other war criminals considering making America their home.
Drew Wade, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said his department "doesn't comment on charging decisions in specific cases."
Frustrating to many law enforcement officials and tragic to victims like Hidic, Boskic's is a single example from hundreds of cases of suspected foreign war criminals, torturers and human rights abusers who have made the United States their home. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the successor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, is litigating 779 such cases concerning suspects from more than 85 countries. Agents from ICE are investigating 264 cases.
There is some overlap so the total figure is about 1,000. They are soldiers, interrogators, commanders - many of them America's former enemies - who have taken advantage of the U.S. welcome to refugees, especially from war-torn countries. With the victims, law enforcement officials say, come some of the killers.
War crimes investigators in the United States and other countries say the reality is that most of the thousands of mid- or low-level war criminals living overseas or in their home countries will escape justice due to a lack of political will and courts designed to prosecute people like Boskic.
When they find these people living in the United States, federal prosecutors and investigators essentially have two choices: Prosecute them for the potentially capital crime of torture, or charge them with lying during their immigration process and deport them as soon as they have served a relatively brief prison sentence.
Under U.S. law, deportees usually can choose to go to any country that will have them. Often, prosecutors can do little but hope the torturers and killers will face justice elsewhere.
The United States enacted a torture statute in 1994, but not a single case has been brought. Some investigators, prosecutors and human rights activists worry that while U.S. law does not give foreign torturers impunity, the fact that the torture statute has not been used has made the United States an attractive destination.
And some investigators and human rights advocates worry that the Justice Department, under Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez - author of a controversial White House memo that critics said effectively sanctioned the use of torture by American interrogators overseas - would never allow the statute's use for fear it could be used on U.S. soldiers or intelligence agents.
The killing field of Branjevo
The first of the buses began arriving at Branjevo Military Farm in the village of Pilica just before 10 in the morning. It was July 16, 1995, and the morning was already baking hot.
Hungry, thirsty and terrified, the dozens of Muslim men in the bus wore civilian clothes. They were as young as 17 and as old as 70. This group was blindfolded and their hands were tied.
Those who came in the 15 to 20 buses that followed could see the green meadow next to the farm where the soldiers stood waiting for them in a line just over 50 yards away.
Among the soldiers, holding his automatic rifle and waiting in the early-morning heat, was Marko Boskic, according to testimony in a war crimes trial by another soldier.
Military police officers took the first 10 men from the bus, which was parked next to the four farm buildings, and led them to the nearby field. They lined them up in the grass, between a wooded area and a farm building, their backs to Boskic and his comrades. The two parallel lines, prisoners and executioners, were about 20 yards apart, according to two survivors and one of the executioners, all of whom have testified at war crimes trials at the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
The soldiers from the Bosnian Serb Army gunned down the 10 prisoners. Then 10 more. And then another 10.
The methodical, merciless killings continued until about 3 in the afternoon. By then, one end of the field was covered in up to 1,200 bodies. It was one of the key executions in the overall Srebrenica massacre, the worst single war crime in Europe since the demise of Nazi Germany.
Boskic's participation is well chronicled.
Former comrade's testimony implicates alleged killer
In 1996, Drazen Erdemovic, Boskic's former comrade in the 10th Sabotage Detachment of the Bosnian Serb Army, testified in detail during his own trial at The Hague war crimes tribunal that he and Boskic were members of an eight-man squad who shot dead the unarmed Bosnian Muslim men who had been captured and bused to the farm north of Srebrenica.
Erdemovic also has testified in at least two other trials at The Hague about the killings at the Branjevo farm. In court on July 5, 1996, he was asked by prosecutor Mark Harmon about orders he had received from a senior officer concerning the Muslim prisoners arriving at the farm on buses.
"Did he say what you and the members of your unit were supposed to do regarding those Muslims from Srebrenica?" Harmon asked.
"Yes," Erdemovic replied.
"What did he say?"
"That we have to execute those people."
Soon after, Harmon asked: "Can you identify the other members of your unit who were present?"
"I can," Erdemovic said, listing his comrades with their first names after their family names. The list included "Boskic, Marko."
Erdemovic estimated later in his testimony that they had killed "somewhere about 1,000, 1,200, I do not know. I estimated the number according to the arrivals of the buses."
On the night of his arrest, in 2004, Boskic told federal agents and an investigator from The Hague tribunal that, as an ethnic Croat, he had been held in a Serb concentration camp and that the only way to gain his freedom was to join the Serb army, according to an excerpt of a statement he gave to investigators that was released by his Boston attorney, Max Stern. Boskic told investigators he was forced by his commander, Milorad Pelemis, to serve on the execution squad, according to the section of the statement Stern released.
"I told Pelemis I do not want to do that," Boskic said in the translated excerpt. " He came up and put a pistol on [my] forehead and said that I have to, or I will be dead. Pelemis said to the commanders that in case someone refuses the duty task, they have the right to shoot him."
Stern is trying to have the courts rule the statement as inadmissable evidence.
'He was just like any other soldier'
In a telephone interview with Newsday from Belgrade, where he is now living, Pelemis, Boskic's former commander in the 10th Sabotage Detachment, said Boskic was "a rather good soldier but was just like any other soldier. He wasn't specialized in anything. He wasn't a sniper or had any other special weapon except an ordinary Kalashnikov. He volunteered to go to combat, motivated by small monetary gains."
Pelemis told Newsday he, personally, was not present during the Srebrenica massacre even though Erdemovic testified in detail about Pelemis' presence, including an incident in which Pelemis ordered one of his soldiers to slit the throat of a Muslim man. According to Pelemis, Boskic was a violent man with an alcohol problem.
"I had problems with him outside of combat because he was inclined to drink," Pelemis said.
"And he was often in Bjieljina taverns and sometimes Zvornik and there were problems there, fights with military and police, with the locals. And I sent him to custody two or three times - I believe three times. I was allowed to give them [his soldiers] up to 30 days in custody. Maybe all in all he spent a year and six months with me in the unit and up to three months in custody."
In 1996, Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Neuffer interviewed Boskic in a café in the Bosnian town of Bjieljina. When she asked why Boskic killed the men at Pilica, Boskic eventually replied: "Would you like to get whacked? I want you to forget this street and this restaurant. It doesn't exist anymore for you. Don't come looking for me anymore. I cannot guarantee the safety of your lives."
Investigators credit Neuffer's reporting for their initial awareness of Boskic, who by chance ended up living in Neuffer's own city.
There is also video evidence of Boskic's involvement with the 10th Sabotage Detachment. He and Pelemis both appear in a video of an awards ceremony celebrating the first anniversary of the unit, according to an affidavit written by senior special agent Gregory Nevano of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Nevano, who investigated Boskic, writes that the prosecutor's office in The Hague provided the video, dated Oct. 14, 1995 - three months after the massacre.
Also present at the ceremony, Nevano writes, is Bosnian Serb Gen. Radislav Krstic, whom The Hague tribunal has convicted of genocide for his involvement at Srebrenica. A cooperating witness who appears to be a soldier in Boskic's unit but is not named in the affidavit identified himself, Boskic, Pelemis and Krstic, Nevano writes.
The American investigation into Boskic's case began in 2003, and the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. attorney's office in Massachusetts privately saw it as a perfect way to begin using the torture statute, sources told Newsday. Many federal officials involved in pursuing foreign war criminals living in the United States shared a common belief: The case could have sent a crucial warning to other foreign war criminals. "That was one of the goals behind it," a federal investigator said. "Part of the whole program is deterrence."
A former Justice Department official with knowledge of the case told Newsday that the U.S. attorney's office in Massachusetts and investigators from Homeland Security wanted to file the unprecedented torture charges against Boskic, but that senior Justice officials told them the evidence against him was not sufficient to secure a conviction under the narrow terms of the torture law.
According to a Justice Department official familiar with the case, "The alleged charges in the Boskic case didn't meet the elements of the statute at the time. The investigation continues as more evidence is collected."
The Massachusetts office was very disappointed with the Justice decision, with officials in Boston believing they had enough evidence to secure a conviction, sources told Newsday. Crucial testimony in a trial, had it been approved, could have come from two survivors of the Branjevo farm massacre. The two men already have appeared as witnesses for the prosecution in Krstic's trial in The Hague.
'I could feel the hot blood pouring over me'
Not publicly identified, they described not just the killings but a scene of physical and mental torture. "When they opened fire, I threw myself on the ground," testified a Muslim man known as Witness Q in the Krstic trial. "And one man fell on my head. I think that he was killed on the spot. And I could feel the hot blood pouring over me ... I could hear one man crying for help. He was begging them to kill him. And they simply said, 'Let him suffer. We'll kill him later.'"
It is likely the two witnesses would testify against Boskic given their past cooperation and the close ties between the prosecutor's office in The Hague and U.S. investigators, an official connected to the case said. Boskic's apparent admission to investigators of his involvement in the massacre was considered another crucial piece of evidence, officials involved in the case said.
The department's decision to seek no further charges - specifically torture - against Boskic means he will be tried for lying about what he did in Bosnia, but most likely not for the acts themselves, although his indictment on the immigration charges reads he "had, in fact, killed a person because of race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin or political opinion."
Samantha Martin, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Boston, told Newsday that the Jan. 10 status report does not preclude the possibility of further charges being brought against Boskic. The office declined to comment further on the case.
Difficult to prosecute
Prosecutors, investigators and legal experts agree it would be extremely hard to bring a precedent-setting torture case. First, there is no direct case law to work with. And given that prosecutors might have sought the death penalty in a case against Boskic, the standard of proof would have been very high, officials said.
In addition, the torture statute is written in a way that makes it hard to build a sufficiently strong case. The crime has to have been committed after the law's passage in November 1994, putting the '95 Srebrenica massacre within the time frame. But a prosecutor would have to prove not only that the defendant tortured someone, but that he or she had "specific intent" to cause physical or mental pain.
With possible torture charges now apparently unlikely, Boskic could be out of U.S. custody before long. He already has served almost 18 months in federal detention awaiting trial on the immigration charges. As an ethnic Croat, he may try to obtain Croatian citizenship, although U.S. officials consider it unlikely the Croatian government would welcome such a well-chronicled suspect. And even though he served in the Bosnian Serb Army, Serbia is unlikely to grant him citizenship because the 10th Sabotage Detachment has long been Serbia's favorite scapegoat for the Srebrenica massacre because many of its soldiers were ethnic Croats and even Muslims.
A successful extradition request, however, would result in Boskic being sent back to Bosnia and into the custody of the state court.
What became of Boskic after the Srebrenica massacre is the story of an alleged killer who blended with the large numbers of victims of the wars in the former Yugoslavia who came to the United States as refugees. It is a common tactic for torturers and killers from numerous countries, said Claude Arnold, who heads the Human Rights Violators and Public Safety unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Homeland Security.
"Ironically, a lot of them even claim to be victims of those atrocities because they know the detail so well of those atrocities and they're claiming to be refugees," Arnold said.
"A lot of refugees were allowed into the U.S. before a lot of records became available that allowed a good vetting of these people," one U.S. official said. "Most of these people were already in the refugee flow coming over before evidence started to be compiled by the ... [war crimes tribunal]. Now the U.S. government is engaged in tracking these people down after they've been in the country for several years. Many of them have been here long enough to have already obtained U.S. citizenship."
Having entered the United States on April 26, 2000, after allegedly lying in writing and in person to immigration officials about his military service and participation in the murder of Muslims, Boskic settled in the northern suburbs of Boston. When he was arrested on Aug. 25, 2004, he was working as a tile-setter and living in his condominium in Peabody, Mass. Based on a tip, federal investigators in Boston had begun looking into his past and realized they had a well-chronicled Srebrenica killer living in their backyard.
On his refugee application form, according to special agent Nevano, Boskic wrote that he fled Bosnia because of his "refusal to join the army to fight in the war - I didn't want to fight in an ethnic war against people I lived with."
When in Boston, Boskic liked to socialize with other Bosnians, including many Muslims who had suffered at the hands of the Serb army, some at Srebrenica. The revelations about his past left many Boston-area Bosnian Muslims stunned - that the man they had drunk beer with and barbecued with had taken part in the slaughter of their families.
The massacre of the Srebrenica Muslims represented a failure by the international community as countries including the United States failed to endorse the use of significant NATO air strikes, now almost universally seen by historians as the only way the killings could have been prevented.
Last year, on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, British foreign secretary Jack Straw acknowledged the failure and apologized. "For it is to the shame of the international community that this evil took place under our noses and we did nothing like enough," he said. "I bitterly regret this and I am deeply sorry for it."
Some convictions, but other suspects still at large
In the aftermath of the massacre, The Hague tribunal has convicted six Bosnian Serb soldiers and officers of crimes committed at Srebrenica. Eight more are in pre-trial status and another ended yesterday when former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died in prison. Three suspects are at large, including former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his general, Ratko Mladic, alleged masterminds of the massacre.
But for the rest of the thousands who took part in the massacre, for the men who pulled the triggers, tortured the prisoners and filled the graves, there has been little to fear so far from any court - in The Hague, the United States or the former Yugoslavia. The Bosnian courts have not secured a single conviction in relation to the massacre.
Bosnia's State Court, established in 2002 to handle war crimes trials and struggling with limited financial resources, recently indicted 11 Srebrenica suspects. Serbia's war crimes court only now is trying its first suspects in a Srebrenica trial - partly a result of Serbia's desire to improve relations with the European Union.
Among the families of the murdered, such minimal action provides little hope for justice. With thousands of boys and men still missing, the best hope for many is that their loved ones' bodies will be found and given a proper burial.
Hidic's brothers, Sead and Alija Durakovic, were soldiers in the predominantly Muslim Bosnian army and, as the Serbs pressed in on the 40,000 Muslims living in Srebrenica, the brothers fled in civilian clothes through the mountains around the safe area. No one in the family saw them alive again.
Last year, the phone rang in their tidy apartment that sits in a housing complex on the outskirts of town. It was an official from the Red Cross, which helps in the ongoing work to identify bodies of those found in mass graves around Srebrenica. Using a DNA sample from Hidic's mother, investigators had identified two bodies found in a grave as being Sead's and Alija's. The man from the Red Cross told her they had been found near a place called Pilica.
On July 11 of last year, Hidic was among the families of more than 600 newly identified victims of the massacre to gather at the Srebrenica memorial and cemetery near the town.
Situated directly across the road from the car battery factory that was a United Nations military base and the place where Serb soldiers separated the men and boys from the women and children, the cemetery is a reminder of a mass murder whose killers have mostly escaped justice.
Row after row of simple green gravestones are marked with the names, hometowns and years of birth and death. The lives of the roughly 2,000 men and boys buried there all ended in 1995, the inscriptions show.
Bodies yet to be identified
There is plenty of room for the thousands of bodies yet to be found or identified. In nearby houses and towns, say war crimes investigators and Muslim survivors, live dozens - perhaps hundreds - of Serbs who took part in the massacre, living with little fear of arrest or prosecution. The unmissable, unavoidable, massive cemetery sits to jab at their consciences.
In the pouring rain on that July day last year, Hidic and her cousins laid to rest her two brothers alongside the other men and boys whose bodies have been identified.
Hidic's husband, Sasa, is yet to be found.
"I had to go through that," she said, referring to the ceremony and burial. Her mother did not go, unable to bear the pain. "There was no one else from the family to be there."
Special correspondent Jovo Martinovic contributed to this story.