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Va. judge certifies ex-Bosnian guard's extradition

Tuesday - 9/17/2013, 3:11pm  ET

LARRY O'DELL
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- A former Bosnian prison camp guard living in Virginia has been certified for extradition to his native country to face war-crimes charges pending approval by the State Department.

Almaz Nezirovic of Roanoke County is charged with torturing Serbians at the Rabic prison camp in 1992 during the civil war in the region of the former Yugoslavia now known as Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnian officials charge that Nezirovic beat, humiliated and traumatized unarmed civilian prisoners.

In an opinion issued late Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert S. Ballou said he found sufficient evidence supporting the allegations. He certified Nezirovic as eligible for extradition and passed the request along to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who will decide whether Nezirovic will be returned to Bosnia for trial.

"Almaz Nezirovic stands charged with horrific acts of torture by the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina," U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy said. "Today's ruling moves this matter one step closer to ultimate resolution in that country."

According to court papers, in 1992 Nezirovic joined a paramilitary group, the HVO, and became a prison guard. The HVO, which stands for Croatian Defense Council, was formed by the Bosnian Croats as they sought to form their own breakaway republic during the war. It had no ties with Bosnia's Muslim-dominated government.

Bosnian authorities allege that Nezirovic beat civilian detainees with a baton and a rifle and forced some prisoners to crawl on the ground naked and eat grass on which others had urinated.

Nezirovic's attorney, public defender Fay Spence, said her client has insisted he is innocent.

"He's consistently denied doing it, and I don't think he did it," Spence said. She said she will encourage Nezirovic to petition a U.S. District Court judge to review the certification.

In court papers, Spence hard argued that the alleged offenses did not amount to "crimes against humanity" as defined by international law.

She also had argued that Nezirovic was exempt from extradition because his actions were political. Nezirovic said he joined the HVO after Serbian troops attacked his hometown of Derventa. He described lying with his family on their living room floor and listening to grenades, and seeing a friend and others die from sniper fire.

Nezirovic previously testified that he joined "any army which can defend me and my family," and claimed that he believed the prisoners housed at Rabic were soldiers who had attacked Derventa.

Ballou accepted Nezerovic's explanation for joining the HVO but rejected his bid to invoke the "political exception" rule to extradition.

"The objective evidence in this case establishes that Nezirovic's alleged victims were civilians," Ballou wrote. "Courts have repeatedly held that there can be no justifiable connection between attacks against civilians and a political disturbance or uprising."

The judge also rejected Nezerovic's argument that his actions should be excused because they were not disproportional to the war's violence.

"Nezirovic's suggestion that the torture of civilians is somehow justified by the general cruelty of ongoing war is contrary to basic provisions of international law, which prohibit such crimes against humanity," Ballou wrote.

Nezirovic, who immigrated to Roanoke County about 15 years ago and worked as a welder, also is charged in U.S. District Court in Roanoke with concealing his wartime activities when applying for refugee status and naturalization in the United States. The U.S. attorney's office said the extradition process will take precedence over the naturalization fraud case, which is not scheduled for trial.

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Follow Larry O'Dell on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LarryOatAP


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