A Serbian man won't face any more jail time after he was sentenced Friday to time served for lying to immigration officials about his work as a paramilitary police officer during the bloody Bosnian war.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents must now decide whether Zeljko Zekic can stay in the country or be deported to the Balkans after he was sentenced to two and a half months of time he already served in federal custody. The agency had no immediate comment on the case.
Zekic pleaded guilty in June to lying about his work and telling officials he had been unemployed during the war when he had actually worked as a senior police officer in the Serbian paramilitary. Zekic rose to the rank of master sergeant in a unit that served under recently captured Gen. Ratko Mladic, who has been charged with war crimes in Europe. Mladic is accused of orchestrating ethnic cleansing campaigns in the 1992 to 1995 war, including the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995 at Srebrenica.
Zekic has denied playing any part in such atrocities, and prosecutors say his past is a mystery even after a lengthy investigation.
"It's really a series of unknowns for the government," said Robert McBurney, an assistant U.S. attorney. "The government really doesn't know who Mr. Zekic is. It's not really known what he did."
Zekic, who apologized to the judge at a brief court hearing, has been confined to his home in Lawrenceville, Ga. by an ankle monitor for months as he awaited Friday's hearing.
He told The Associated Press in a June interview that he had no part in the atrocities that have led to war crimes charges against other high-ranking officials, and that he lied only to give his wife and two children a better life.
"I was trying to do what's best for my family, my life, my children," he said, adding: "I make false statements to help my family, but there's nothing criminal in that. It should be like a speeding ticket. It's a foul, but not a big foul."
Zekic also said he played no part in mass killings during the war, which left 100,000 dead and forced 1.8 million from their homes.
"I had nothing to do with Srebrenica," Zekic told the AP. "I was a traffic police. I say for you and everyone that I am sure I never was involved in Srebrenica. I worked with traffic police all the time then."
Prosecutors, though, say he should pay the price for misleading federal immigration officials.
"We don't typically take up the court's time with a lie on a form," McBurney said. "But the significance of this case is why we brought it up."
Just as Zekic's past is a mystery, so is his future. Customs officials had no immediate comment on the case, and his attorney Anna Blitz said during the hearing she's not sure what will happen to him next. Prosecutors say even if he's deported, he could still face more criminal charges overseas.
"He could be hauled before a war crimes tribunal," McBurney said.
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