A U.S. citizen who served as Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations cannot be extradited even though he is accused of embezzling more than $610,000 from the government of the war-torn Balkan nation, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a loss for U.S. prosecutors and overturns a decision ordering that Muhamed Sacirbey, 53, be returned to Bosnia to face questioning about the money.
Sacirbey testified in 2003 that he believed political motives were behind a probe into how money was spent while he was ambassador for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 through 2000.
The appeals court voted 2-1 to reject the attempted extradition of Sacirbey, saying he has not been formally charged with a crime by a court with proper jurisdiction.
It added that if Bosnia renews a request for Sacirbey's extradition, the U.S. State Department can block the extradition because he is a citizen.
The court said the State Department might want to invoke that right if it finds that a Bosnian probe of Sacirbey's tenure as ambassador is motivated by a political vendetta, if it finds that he faces mistreatment in Bosnian custody, "or, indeed, for no reason at all, as the Treaty does not require any justification for declining to extradite U.S. citizens."
Sacirbey said he was targeted because he would not help Bosnian authorities investigate his former boss, the late Alija Izetbegovic, former president of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for U.S. government lawyers, said she had no comment.
James J. McGuire, a lawyer for Sacirbey, described his client as "a very happy man" after the ruling.
Sacirbey, who lives in the New York City borough of Staten Island, said the ruling "feels like a vindication."
"It's cost me a lot of my life," he said of the legal fight. He said that he made himself available to Bosnian authorities to be interviewed in the United States, but that they never took him up on it.
"They've avoided it, and I think the court recognized there's something very funny going on here," he said.
Sacirbey was born in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, to parents who were imprisoned for a time for opposing the country's Communist authoritarian government. In the 1960s, the family immigrated to the United States, settling in Ohio.
Sacirbey became a U.S. citizen in 1973 at age 16 and attended Tulane University in New Orleans on a football scholarship. He received a law degree from Tulane and a master's degree in business administration from Columbia University.
After working as a lawyer at a New York law firm, he switched in the 1980s to finance, securing a job as a vice president at Standard and Poor's, the rating agency, and later as vice president of an investment bank.
After the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, the United States recognized its independence and it was allowed membership to the U.N. Sacirbey was appointed to serve as the young nation's ambassador.
As war erupted there, Sacirbey became foreign minister following the assassination of his predecessor in 1995. He then represented Bosnia at peace talks in 1995 outside Dayton, Ohio, which resulted in a deal ending the war.
The appeals court noted that Sacirbey was described in President Clinton's book "My Life" as "the eloquent public face of Bosnia on American television."
It also cited Sacirbey's testimony that for much of his tenure he received no salary and that he had to open the U.N. mission using his own money, including fees from speaking engagements and by soliciting contributions from sympathetic nations.
On Jan. 29, 2002, Bosnia sought Sacirbey's extradition to answer questions in a probe of the disappearance of about $1.8 million from the nation's Investment Fund Ministry and more than $600,000 from an account for Bosnia's U.N. delegation. He was arrested in March 2003 and detained for more than a year before he was released on bail in July 2004.