This afternoon a jury convicted a refugee accused of rape during the Bosnian war of lying to immigration officials in order to gain U.S. citizenship.
After 12 hours of deliberation, a jury of eight women and four men found Edin Sakoc guilty on a charge of unlawful procurement of naturalization. He now faces a potential prison term and deportation.
Sakoc sat stone-faced as the verdict was read in U.S. District Court in Burlington, just as he had throughout his two-week trial. After jurors left the courtroom, he exchanged handshakes and hugs with his attorneys and shrugged his shoulders.
Afterward, prosecutors said they will seek to deport Sakoc, 55, who does not have a prior criminal record. The conviction can also carry a 10-year prison sentence.
Judge William Sessions III released Sakoc to live with friends in Essex Junction while he awaited his sentencing later this year.
He's told his lawyers he hasn't committed any crime, and his family and those who know him believe in him, defense attorney Steven Barth said afterward.
“It is an important case because we have laws that govern immigration into this country, and when we receive information that raises questions about whether a person has abused that system in coming in there’s an obligation to investigate it and follow through,” Acting U.S. Attorney Eugenia Cowles said.
Sakoc’s attorneys said they would file an appeal.
“It would be a tragedy for him to be deported,” attorney David McColgin said. “It would have a terrible impact on him and his family.” Sakoc has a wife and 7-year-old daughter in Vermont. He also has an adult son and a grandchild in Bosnia.
Sakoc’s wife, Fata, and a handful of his friends were in court for the verdict. They declined to comment afterward.
Sakoc had been accused of kidnapping and raping one woman and assisting a soldier who murdered two other women during the Bosnian War in 1992. Sakoc was in a military unit that battled ethnic Serbs. Sakoc is a Muslim, and the women he is accused of targeting were Serbs. He denied the rape, and said he participated in legitimate wartime actions.
In their decision, jurors did not find Sakoc guilty of lying about whether he had "committed any crime," or "persecuted any person" despite testimony about the rape and murders. Rather, they said he was guilty simply of giving "false or misleading information" to immigration officials.
After the verdict, prosecutors discussed for the first time one of the lingering mysteries of the case: How did it originate? Prosecutor Jay Bauer said that authorities investigating human rights abuses and other crimes learned of offenses committed in the area where Sakoc had lived in Bosnia. Sakoc was not an initial target, Bauer said, without providing further details.
While waiting for a verdict, Sakoc spent most of his time sitting quietly outside the courtroom with friends, including Elizabeth and Thomas Tailer, who have allowed him to stay in their Essex Junction home since his arrest. Sakoc appeared relaxed. He smiled warmly at reporters and courtroom staff, occasionally ducked into the closed room where his attorneys were waiting, and headed outside for a smoke break.
A Vermont resident since 2001, Sakoc has led a quiet, middle-class life, according to court documents. While he once worked for a custodial services company, he has recently spent most of his time caring for his young daughter while his wife worked.
Local friends from various ethnic backgrounds wrote letters to the court, describing Sakoc as warm toward all kinds of people.