BURLINGTON, Vt. – A Bosnian immigrant accused of lying to U.S. immigration authorities by denying involvement in war crimes during the conflict in Bosnia two decades ago pleaded not guilty on Friday.
Prosecutors allege Edin Sakoc, who has been living in Burlington, the state’s largest city, was involved in war crimes against a civilian Bosnian Serb family in 1992. An indictment says he raped a Serb woman and aided in the killing of the two elderly people she was caring for and the burning of the house they were staying in.
Sakoc, 54, appeared briefly Friday in U.S. District Court, where he was ordered to surrender his passport because he was deemed a flight risk.
Judge Christina Reiss asked Sakoc whether he had reviewed the case with his attorney. Through an interpreter, he said yes but “we did not talk about everything.”
Sakoc was jailed for the weekend, but defense lawyer Robert Behrens said he expected he’d be released on Monday.
Authorities said Sakoc lied when he applied for refugee status and later for permanent residency and then citizenship in the United States by denying any past crimes of persecution.
Sakoc is a Bosnian Muslim. He moved to Vermont in 2001, became a legal resident of the United States in 2004 and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in June 2007. The Burlington Free Press reported Sakoc has a wife and a 6-year-old daughter.
The people Sakoc is accused of victimizing were Orthodox Christian Bosnian Serbs.
The Bosnian Serb family had moved from a home in the southern Bosnian municipality of Capljina to the home of a Bosnian Croat family nearby, the indictment said. Most Bosnian Serbs in the village had fled to safer areas, but a woman remained to care for two people who were too old to travel far, it said.
On or around July 9, 1992, Sakoc and an unnamed co-conspirator went to the home where the victims were staying, took the woman from the home, raped her and took her to the Dretelj prison camp, the indictment said.
Later that night or early the next day, Sakoc and the co-conspirator returned to the home, the indictment said. With help from Sakoc, the co-conspirator fatally shot the two elderly people, burned the home down and separately burned the victims’ bodies, it said.
The two-count indictment did not include charges directly tied to those events but charged that Sakoc had lied to immigration authorities three times when asked if he had participated in crimes of persecution and moral turpitude: when he applied for refugee status in the U.S. in 2001, when he applied for permanent legal residency in 2004 and when he applied for citizenship in 2007.
Vermont has a sizable Bosnian community. Between 1993 and 2004, 1,705 Bosnians were resettled in the state, although it’s unclear how many remain today.
Members of the community were unaware Friday of the charge against Sakoc.
The indictment was based on a probe by Homeland Security Investigations, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, assisted by the federal Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center and the FBI.