They could be your Uber driver or the security guard at a local airport. The elderly neighbor living next door or the operator of the neighborhood ice cream shop. They came to the United States from all corners of the globe -- Somalia, Rwanda, El Salvador, the Balkans, Germany, Iraq -- claiming to have been persecuted. In reality, they were the persecutors.
For decades, war criminals have lived alongside those they tortured or displaced. Under the guise of being a refugee, they've sought new lives in America. But quiet efforts are underway to expose and punish as many of these hidden offenders as possible -- and ensure none find a lasting haven in the U.S.
“What survivors want is for the truth to come out through the due process,” Dixon Osburn, Executive Director of the Center for Justice & Accountability told Fox News. “When we prove with evidence, that is really empowering for individuals who have suffered.”
Just over a month ago, in a civil case championed by San Francisco-based nonprofit CJA, a U.S. jury ruled Somali native Yusuf Abdi Ali shot and tortured at least one other refugee -- who now also lives in the U.S. -- when Ali served as a commander in the national army amid Somalia’s civil war in the late 1980s. Up until the trial in May, Ali drove for Uber and Lyft in Virginia – scoring the jobs even after he was deported from Canada due to his past and despite another suit filed against him that resulted in Ali being placed on administrative leave from a previous position as security guard at Dulles International Airport near Washington DC.
A jury awarded the torture survivor some $500,000 in damages in the CJA case.
It marked the third CJA victory in cases brought against those who committed shocking human rights violations dating back to the early ’90s war in Somalia alone. Yet it's merely the tip of the iceberg of war criminals lurking -- and working -- on U.S. turf.
“In one case years ago, there was a Haitian commander who was living in Miami and appeared on television after winning the lottery. One of his victims saw it and said, ‘wait a minute,’” Osburn recalled, highlighting one of the more than a dozen investigations currently ongoing, ranging from commanders and criminal town mayors to narco-traffickers and other foreign perpetrators. “Never again means never again, and we are doing what we can as members of civil society. We hope each case stands for something bigger.”
Using any means at its disposal -- litigation, transnational justice, policy advocacy -- to bring human rights abusers to justice, CJA has taken on cases involving crimes from areas ranging from El Salvador and Guatemala; to the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Chile, Somalia and beyond.
The firm has successfully represented 45 Cambodian Americans in taking on senior Khmer Rouge officials responsible for carrying out mass genocide, starvation and other atrocities in the 1970s under the repressive rule of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. And in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, CJA – on behalf of torture victims – took on Nikola Vuckovic, who had been able to enter the U.S. as a refugee and lead a quiet life in Atlanta before being accused of subjecting his Muslim neighbors to torture at the height of the conflict.
More recently, a case this year was won against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, regarding the president’s direct involvement in the targeted killing of American journalist Marie Colvin amid the vicious civil war and dissident crackdown in 2012.
In April, some ten years since the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war, a former defense chief and U.S. citizen, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who oversaw the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels, was tracked to a Trader Joe’s parking lot in Los Angeles and served with a civil court complaint accusing him of murder and torture. A spokesman for Gotabaya has consistently denied the accusations and deemed them “politically motivated.” He's reportedly since taken steps to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
Leading the charge on the U.S. government front is the Human Rights Violators War Crimes Center – which was instituted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement more than a decade ago and is operated by Homeland Security Investigations. With an interagency approach and a growing team of about 50 analysts, researchers, attorneys and investigators focused on different geographic regions of the world, the HRVWCC relentlessly investigates individuals residing within the United States, or U.S. persons abroad, suspected of having executed serious human rights violations, including genocide, torture and war crimes.
“When conflicts happen, perpetrators find themselves in the mix of the refugee or displaced persons’ flow. Over time, sometimes we can find out fairly quickly and other times it takes ten or fifteen years for someone to come to us and say ‘hey, this guy did this back in my country,’” HRVWCC Chief Mark Shaffer told Fox News.
Since 2003, ICE has arrested more than 415 individuals for human rights-related violations under an array of criminal and/or immigration statutes. During that same 16-year period, Fox News has learned, ICE obtained deportation orders against and physically removed more than 900 known or suspected human rights violators and has facilitated the departure of 152 others from U.S. soil.
HRVWCC has issued more than 75,000 lookouts for individuals from more than 110 countries and stopped over 300 human rights violators and war crime suspects from entering the country.
As it stands, HSI has more than 170 active investigations into suspected human rights violators and is currently pursuing more than 1600 leads and removal cases involving suspected human rights violators in the U.S.
Where possible, the HRVWCC teams up with the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue criminal prosecutions pegged to one of four specific areas – genocide, torture, war crimes and recruitment or use of child soldiers – but most often, authorities instead have to turn to the Immigration and Nationality Act and use administrative charges of immigration fraud. This often involves individuals having failed to disclose their nebulous past professions or validating themselves as being of high moral standing.
“So we use what we call the 'Al Capone method,' where we'll use every tool that we have in the toolbox to try and bring some type of justice to these cases,” explained Mona Ragheb, a senior legal advisor with DHS and one of the specialized unit’s few founding members. “We look at each case and try to find a criminal statute that will fly.”
Ragheb also pointed out that the Torture Statute was enacted in 1994 and the legislation against those who recruit child soldiers was enacted in 2008, so, while the unit encounters many examples of those who committed such violations before that date, they are not able to prosecute the offenders criminally on those grounds, meaning they have to turn to the immigration violations.
In one case, a 47-year-old Rwandan man, Jean Leonard Teganya, earlier this month was sentenced to at least eight years in prison for lying about the role he played in the country’s 1994 genocide in order to be granted asylum in the United States.
Meanwhile, Ilija Josipovic – who in 2003 settled as a refugee with his family in Ohio having denied any prior military service – was exposed by investigators 12 years later as having been a high-ranking Bosnian Serb officer and accused of war crimes. ICE agents returned him to Bosnia in 2017.
That same year, a 73-year-old Delaware man, Mohammed Jabateh, was convicted of concealing his prior life as a Liberian war criminal during the conflict in the 1990s. And in 2014, a Lebanese-born man Mahmoud Bazzi – who came to the U.S. on someone else’s passport in 1993 and went on to get a valid green card and set up an ice-cream business in Michigan – was accused by two former members of the Irish Defense Forces of kidnapping and torturing them during a UN mission in 1980. He was then convicted and deported.
Even Nazi war criminals in the U.S. have come under the glare in recent decades.
Characterized as the last Nazi war criminal in America, Jakiw Palij – who served as a forced labor camp guard and trained other Nazi perpetrators – came to the U.S. four years after WWll ended as “a farmer” and was later granted citizenship. When the longtime New Yorker’s murky past was brought to the surface decades later, Palij was finally deprived of his citizenship in 2003. But it wasn’t until last year, at the urging of President Trump, that the then 95-year-old was carried out of his Queens home by ICE agents on a stretcher and expelled to Germany.
Before that case, research led by HRVWCC paved the way for concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk to have his U.S. citizenship revoked in 2009 before he was sent to Munich to stand trial. Similarly, a naturalized American citizen in Massachusetts, Aleksandras Lileikis – who was later proven by unit investigators to have been a top Nazi collaborator – was stripped of his citizenship more than a decade earlier and returned to Lithuania.
While the overwhelming majority of those exposed are male, female war criminals are among the mix, too.
One refugee known as Sammy Yetisen who came to the U.S. in the 1990s built a new existence in Oregon, had a child and became a naturalized citizen in 2002. But in 2012, Yetisen was stripped of her citizenship and extradited after it was discovered that she – using the alias Rasema Handanovic aka Zolja – had targeted Bosnian Croat citizens by firing squad as part of an elite special-forces unit with the Supreme Command staff of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was later revealed she fled her unit in 1995 and sought refuge in the U.S. under the guise she was a Muslim and thus had no safe place to turn to in Bosnia.
HRVWCC’s team also works to ensure human rights violators are prohibited from future entry, what they deem a “preventative mission.”
“It’s a team of intelligence research specialists who specialize in a particular region of the world, or on a specific conflict,” Shaffer said. “Usually the information we gather is enough to prevent (an involved individual) from entering the United States.”
Nonetheless, for some victims, justice is held up by a fear of coming forward. One California-based Iraqi, who fled to the U.S. amid the U.S.-led operation in 2003 after being threatened by Baghdad militias because of his work for American contractors, told Fox News the very person who threatened his family and firebombed a relative’s house was believed to be in Texas, according to the man's social media. Yet the victim – still afraid for his family and insisting he wants nothing more than a drama-free, quiet life – said he just wants the matter to go away.
“If there is no investigation and no prosecution, often there is no justice for these victims – ever,” Ragheb stressed. “We always say never forget and never again, and we always hope our work here can persuade countries who might have amnesty to also live like that.”
Individuals who have information about a person who committed serious human rights violations are urged to submit a tip, anonymous or otherwise, to HRV.ICE@ice.dhs.gov or call the tip line 1-866-347-2423