Bosnians accuse feds of ethnic bias

The Arizona Republic
Sept. 16, 2005


 Dennis Wagner


 About 500 fearful and angry Bosnian refugees assembled at a north Phoenix church Thursday to fight criminal charges against members who allegedly served in the Serbian army during the 1990s war in former Yugoslavia.

Congregants at St. Nikolas Serbian Orthodox Church accused federal prosecutors and investigators of ethnic discrimination and wrongful arrests before the meeting, which was highlighted by words from a Serbian diplomat.

Alexander Stojsic, the church board's secretary, said Bosnian Christian refugees here are terrified that more federal agents will swoop through the community in a wave of arrests and deportations. "That's the biggest concern," he noted. "There are hundreds of people meeting every night" to plan a defense. The group has started a legal defense fund.

Lily Tomecak, another board member, said many of the defendants lost family members and endured prison during the war. "Haven't they suffered enough?" she said. "We're just so upset."

This week, the government rounded up 13 Bosnians in Phoenix after they were indicted for fraud because they allegedly failed to disclose service in the Serbian army on immigration forms. Seven others were arrested for deportation proceedings, but not charged with crimes because the statute of limitations expired.

Bosnian Serbs in the community said the mostly male defendants are hard-working family men with no history of crime or involvement in atrocities. They insisted that Serbia's army conscripted every male at age 18, and those who were forced into service did not regard themselves as military personnel.

When told of those arguments, Russell Ahr, a spokesman for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, said: "If that's the case, what kept them from saying that on the application?"

Ahr said refugees were interviewed by asylum officers in Belgrade, and questioned about military service. He added that other immigrants who made fraudulent claims "may have a reason to be worried."

Stojsic said most Bosnian refugees speak only Serbian and merely signed documents that were filled out by English-language relief workers in Belgrade years ago. "Lots of them didn't even read the forms. They're completed and handed to them and told to sign."

Sandy Raynor, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, declined to comment on whether more Bosnian-Serb refugees in the Valley are under investigation. She also refused to say what prompted the investigation, or how the 20 individuals were singled out.

All of the accused are former Yugoslavian citizens who lived in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina during a three-year ethnic and religious war that ended in 1995. Tribunals have concluded that troops on both sides of the conflict committed atrocities.

The defendants allegedly failed to divulge service with the Army of the Republic of Srpska. Some also face accusations of perjury or fraud more recently in Phoenix when registering to become permanent U.S. residents.

Desko Nikitovic, counsel general for Serbia-Montenegro, flew from Chicago to Arizona on Thursday to address the immigrants, some of whom have lived in America for a decade.

"I just wanted to stress the point that the Serbian community is very concerned, and a lot of people are very intimidated," Nikitovic said. "(They fear) that this is ethnic targeting."

In an e-mail to media, community spokeswoman Miryana Petrovic wrote: "This injustice is tied to a racial profiling witch hunt. None of the Muslim or Croatian refugees (from Bosnia) have been arrested."

Defendants were seized and handcuffed at their homes and businesses Monday. All are being detained on either the criminal charges or pending immigration action against them. Supporters said many were traumatized because the arrests revived memories of persecution and prison camps in Bosnia.

The crowd applauded Nikitovic repeatedly during a speech in Serbian to those at St. Nikolas, but he declined to have his words translated. Beforehand, he said he intended to calm the congregants and ask them to have faith in the legal system