Updated, 8 p.m., 1/14/15, with testimony from witnesses.
A trial opened in federal court in Burlington this morning in the case of a local refugee from Bosnia who is accused of concealing his involvement in a rape and two murders during ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the early 1990s.
Edin Sakoc faces deportation if convicted. He is charged with two counts of lying to obtain refugee status and full citizenship.
Sakoc, who arrived in Vermont in 2001, was part of a wave of more than 1,000 Bosnian refugees who settled in the state, mostly in the Burlington area.
Prosecutors allege that he hid a dark past from federal immigration officials in order to obtain his green card and eventual citizenship. While serving as a soldier, prosecutors charge in an indictment, Sakoc abducted, assaulted and raped a young woman before dropping her in a prison camp, and then helped his friend murder two of the woman's relatives.
"Citizenship is a special privilege. People from all over the world come to the United States seeking that special privilege," Jay Bauer, a prosecutor from the Justice Department's Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, told the jury. "The defendant piled lies upon lies upon lies to get that ultimate privilege."
Defense attorneys say that Sakoc did nothing wrong. The woman who says she was raped has given inconsistent statements, and other witnesses are motivated by simmering ethnic tensions, defense attorney Steven Barth said in his opening statement. "He didn't kill anyone, he didn't rape anyone, he didn't lie to immigration," Barth said in U.S. District Court.
Sakoc spent the morning quietly listening to a translation through a large headset.
While Sakoc is charged only with lying to immigration officers, the case is rooted in a brutal and complex war that hasn't been in the headlines for two decades. Barth spent most of his hourlong opening argument offering a history of the former Yugoslavia dating to World War II and explaining how longstanding tensions among ethnic groups devolved into war when the country collapsed in the 1990s.
Bosnia, one of six former republics of Yugoslavia, was invaded by neighboring Serbia. Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims teamed up against Bosnian Serbs. After repelling the Serbs in the region where Sakoc lived, the Croats quickly turned on the Muslims, unleashing another round of bloodshed.
Sakoc was a Bosnian Muslim. Almost all of the government's witnesses, Barth said, are Croats. The alleged rape victim is a Serb.
"Historical context is very important in this case," Barth told a jury of 10 women and four men. "It was a brutal war. This was the one from which the term 'ethnic cleansing' was born ... All the evidence you hear must be viewed through the lens of these ethnic animosities."
Court records indicate that Sakoc, who has a wife and child, has lived in Burlington and Essex Junction.
Early testimony offered a preview of what promises to be an unusual trial. Attorneys flew to Bosnia earlier this year to take testimony from many witnesses still living there. In the courtroom with an empty witness chair, jurors, attorneys and onlookers stared at television monitors, watching video of the recorded testimony.
Prosecutors this afternoon offered testimony from their first key witness, Misko Djuraskovic, who testified via a video that was made in Bosnia last year. Djuraskovic, 72, said that he and his family were helping to shelter a young woman, along with her mother and aunt, in 1992, while war was tearing Bosnia apart.
He testified that Sakoc, wearing a mask and brandishing a firearm, and an associate identified in court only as "Boban" stormed into his home in southern Bosnia.
The women he sheltered were Bosnian Serbs, an ethic group that was clashing with Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims. (Sakoc was a Muslim, Boban a Croat.)
The men said they were taking the young woman away for interrogation, Djuraskovic testified.
“Kill me here. Don’t take me away,” she pleaded, according to Djuraskovic.
Prosecutors allege that, after the men left the home with the young woman, Sakoc raped her and brought her to a prison camp.
Sakoc and Boban returned to Djuraskovic’s home, this time targeting her mother and aunt, Djuraskovic said. Boban shot them both, Djuraskovic testified. “He shot her in the head,” Djuraskovic said of one woman. “Her eyes and mouth stayed open after that. I’ve never seen something like that.”
Sakoc stood by passively, telling Djuraskovic that there was nothing he could do, he testified.
“He’s the boss. He’s in charge,” Sakoc said, indicating Boban, according to Djuraskovic.
“Are you going to kill us as well?” Djuraskovic said he asked the men.
“Are you Croats?” Boban asked. Djuraskovic said they were.
“Why would I kill my Croats?” Boban replied, shortly before he and Sakoc departed.
Prosecutors called to the stand historian Robert Donia, a Bosnia expert who has testified at war crimes trials at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He offered a history of the region and an overview of the 1992 war. Donia is expected to return to the witness stand Wednesday.