A naturalized U.S. citizen living in Vermont pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he lied on his citizenship application about gruesome war crimes he is accused of having committed 21 years ago during the Bosnian war.
The man, Edin Sakoc, 54, who lives with his wife and a 6-year-old daughter in Burlington, Vt., was being held by U.S. marshals pending a court appearance Monday at which a judge will decide whether to release him pending trial.
The grand jury indictment, which was unsealed Friday in U.S. District Court in Burlington, alleges that Sakoc, a Bosnian Muslim, kidnapped and raped a Bosnian Serb woman and abetted the killings her mother and aunt in July 1992 — only three months into what would become a 3½-year bloodbath as ethnic and religious factions fought over the remains of the former Yugoslavia.
That's not what he's charged with, however. The indictment formally charges him with two counts of failing to disclose the alleged crimes, first in 2004 when he applied for legal permanent residence and again in 2007 when he applied for and was granted U.S. citizenship.
If convicted, Sakoc could be sentenced to as long as 10 years in prison, fined as much as $250,000 and lose his U.S. citizenship.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn't answer a call seeking an explanation of how U.S. investigators learned about the allegations against Sakoc. The indictment was kept under seal until Friday to protect agents and sources, indicating that he was possibly identified by an informer.
Sakoc's court-appointed attorney told reporters after Friday's hearing that he had no comment but that he expected his client to be released Monday after turning in his U.S. and Bosnian passports.
The Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in March 1992. The next month, armed conflict broke out between Bosnian Serbs and a loose coalition of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats. The conflict spread to other former Yugoslav republics, leading to the deaths of at least 140,000 people by the time peace was brokered in December 1995, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated in 2010.
In July 1992, the indictment alleges, Sakoc and an unnamed co-conspirator kidnapped a Bosnian Serb woman from the home where she and her elderly mother and aunt had taken refuge in the town of Capljina. Sakoc assaulted and raped the woman and took her to Dretelj, a nearby prison camp where Bosnian Serbs were tortured or killed during the war, it says.
A few hours later, Sakoc and his partner returned to the home, where the unnamed second person shot and killed the woman's mother and aunt, the indictment alleges. They then burned the women's bodies and torched the house, it says.
In a statement, Bruce Foucart, the special agent in charge of ICE's office for Homeland Security Investigations in Boston, said, "Alleged human rights violators who believe they can find a safe haven in the United States are sorely mistaken.
"Even if they take on a different identity in an effort to protect themselves from prosecution, they will be discovered and they will be brought to justice for their crimes," he said.