U.S. im­mi­gra­tion spe­cial unit tar­gets war crime sus­pects

Ef­forts boosted to find, de­port peo­ple ac­cused of hu­man rights abuses

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Paloma Esquivel

LOS AN­GE­LES— When Car­los de Graca Lopes took over as di­rec­tor of Sao Mart­inho Prison in Cape Verde in 2001, he warned in­mates: He had one hand made of vel­vet and an­other made of iron. Grab the vel­vet hand and be re­warded. Grab the iron hand and face the con­se­quences.

Over the next five years, Lopes ruled with his iron hand, ac­cord­ing to a govern­ment in­dict­ment filed against him in Cape Verde. More than 150 times, the in­dict­ment al­leges, he or­dered or per­son­ally car­ried out the beat­ing and tor­ture of pris­on­ers.

In 2006, de­spite a govern­ment or­der that Lopes re­main in the is­land coun­try off Africa’s At­lantic coast while un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, he was granted a tourist visa to the U.S., where he dis­ap­peared.

There are hundreds, pos­si­bly thou­sands, of al­leged hu­man rights and war crimes vi­o­la­tors who man­aged to em­i­grate to the United States, of­ten with le­gal au­tho­riza­tion. Although fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials have long sought to find and de­port such of­fend­ers, ef­forts to pre­vent their en­try and pun­ish vi­o­la­tors have grown in the last few years.

In 2009, U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment opened the Hu­man Rights Vi­o­la­tors and War Crimes Cen­ter, tasked with iden­ti­fy­ing and track­ing sus­pected rights vi­o­la­tors and war crim­i­nals around the world.

Its work has led to sev­eral high-pro­file ar­rests, among them a mar­tial arts in­struc­tor and a main­te­nance man, both in Cal­i­for­nia, ac­cused of tak­ing part in the mas­sacre of at least 160 peo­ple dur­ing the Gu­atemalan civil war; a Ge­or­gia man who was al­legedly part of a Ser­bian para­mil­i­tary group that killed thou­sands dur­ing the Bos­nian war; and a Chicago-area gro­cery store worker wanted in Rwanda on charges of geno­cide and war crimes.

Nearly 10 years ago, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional is­sued a re­port call­ing the U.S. a haven for tor­tur­ers and iden­ti­fy­ing more than 1,000 sus­pected hu­man rights vi­o­la­tors liv­ing in the coun­try. At the time, fed­eral of­fi­cials ex­pended lit­tle ef­fort to track them down, the rights group said. But of­fi­cials in the Home­land Se­cu­rity and Jus­tice de­part­ments, who had long fo­cused on Nazi war crim­i­nals, were now look­ing at al­leged of­fend­ers from Cen­tral Amer­ica, Bos­nia, Rwanda and other coun­tries. Over the next few years, ar­rests mounted and the Jus­tice Depart­ment launched its own unit sim­i­lar to Ice’swar crimes cen­ter.

“As we be­gan to be suc­cess­ful, we got more re­sources, more bod­ies,” said ICE Unit Chief Tom An­nello.

The ICE cen­ter now has about 28 full-time em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing at­tor­neys, re­searchers and an­a­lysts. They use de­clas­si­fied U.S. govern­ment doc­u­ments and other data to iden­tify pos­si­ble cul­prits. The com­piled names, which so far num­ber more than 3,000, are then shared with U.S. agents and of­fi­cials tasked with ap­prov­ing visas.

Vi­enna Colucci, a se­nior pol­icy ad­viser at Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, said that deal­ing with the prob­lem through im­mi­gra­tion “isn’t ideal.” Pre­vent­ing a per­son from en­ter­ing the coun­try or de­port­ing them with­out hand­ing them over to a court “doesn’t help to stop atroc­i­ties,” she said.

The U.S., she said, needs to be more will­ing to use crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion at home.

Over the years, Congress has adopted laws aimed at al­low­ing the pros­e­cu­tion of tor­ture and hu­man rights abuses com­mit­ted abroad, a move ap­plauded by hu­man rights groups.

But the laws cover only atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted af­ter the laws were adopted, or some­times ap­ply only to U.S. cit­i­zens or mem­bers of the mil­i­tary. So far only one per­son, Chuckie Tay­lor, the son of former Liberian dic­ta­tor Charles Tay­lor, has been suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted. Tay­lor was con­victed in 2009 and sen­tenced to 97 years in fed­eral prison.

More of­ten, of­fi­cials said, they set­tle for lesser charges that can later re­sult in de­por­ta­tion.

“We’ll go af­ter them for visa fraud, per­jury, jay­walk­ing. We don’t care,” An­nello said.

In Lopes’ case, when im­mi­gra­tion agents, act­ing on a tip from the FBI in Sene­gal, found him about a year af­ter his ar­rival in the U.S., he was liv­ing out­side Bos­ton and mak­ing frozen piz­zas for gro­cery stores.

Agents took him in for over­stay­ing his visa and waited to see what he would do, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the case.

Rather than ac­cept de­por­ta­tion, Lopes ap­plied for asy­lum, ac­cord­ing to court records. On his ap­pli­ca­tion, he wrote, “I have never been for­mally charged with any crimes,” ac­cord­ing to a fed­eral in­dict­ment. Be­cause of those and other an­swers he gave, he was charged with fraud, mis­use of a visa and per­jury. He pleaded guilty and was sen­tenced to three years in fed­eral prison.

Lopes, 49, com­pleted his prison term last year and was re­turned to Cape Verde in Septem­ber 2010.

He is be­ing de­tained at a mil­i­tary base while he awaits trial. In a tele­phone in­ter­view, he said he was sen­tenced harshly in the U.S. be­cause of crimes he was only ac­cused of in Cape Verde.

He re­called be­ing housed in soli­tary con­fine­ment in an “alu­minum box” with no air con­di­tion­ing be­fore he was trans­ferred from New York to fed­eral prison in Ari­zona.

“They kept me there for 30 days — it was the worst time of my life,” he said. “Amer­i­can jus­tice­was not just with me.”

DON BARTLETTI/TRI­BUNE NEWS­PA­PERS PHOTO

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