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Local Serbs grateful, still worried

Deportation fears linger despite legal wins.

By MELANIE AVE and KEVIN GRAHAM, Times Staff Writers
Published December 16, 2007

Sekula Bilic, left, kisses a small cross while receiving anafora, a piece of bread that has been blessed but not consecrated, at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg. Bilic was among three men recently acquitted on allegations of lying about Serbian military service on immigration papers.
[James Borchuck | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG - He just couldn't talk about it.

Andjelko Krsmanovic, 12, slumped in his chair last week, brushing away the tears falling from his puffy eyes at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church.

It should have been a time of rejoicing since his father's trial ended, but the pain of the last year and the uncertainty of the future was still too raw.

"He does this every time," said his older brother, Marko, 20. "This shows you how bad it's been."

The boy's tears are emblematic of the mixed feelings now facing the Serbian community after five St. Petersburg immigrant men were freed from prosecutors' allegations that they hid their service in a Serbian military unit and knew of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. One other man is working on a deal to surrender his U.S. citizenship and leave the country in exchange for charges being dismissed.

Prosecutors dropped charges against two of the men for denying their service in the Army of the Serb Republic on immigration documents. Juries acquitted three others on similar charges.

The last of the acquitted, Andjelko's father Strahinja Krsmanovic, 59, was cleared Nov. 30 after prosecutors failed to make their case after a weeklong trial.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the acquittals.

For the men, the legal victories ring a bit hollow. They now fear deportation charges.

"We just want to live our lives and work," said Krsmanovic through a translator. "Be law-abiding, contributing citizens."

"Now, always, I want to stay in America," said Sekula Bilic, 37, who was acquitted in August.

* * *

The St. Petersburg men were charged as part of a nationwide sweep by the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find soldiers involved in the massacre of Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were executed.

Dozens of Serbs were arrested in Arizona, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Attorney Robert J. Pavich and his Chicago law firm represented four of the local men. A broad picture of how cases across the country turned out is difficult to determine. Pavich said that early on, some men pleaded guilty because they didn't know how to fight the charges in court.

"I'm not certain that people thought they could defend themselves," said Pavich, who was lead counsel for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia from 2001 to 2003. "Where people had representation to point out the holes in the case, the defense was successful."

In High Point, N.C., two Serbian immigrants were convicted this year and now face deportation. A third man was acquitted but also faces deportation.

Marko Boskic of Peabody, Mass., received five years and three months in prison after a jury convicted him last year of lying on immigration forms. But jurors acquitted him of lying about killing anyone because of race, religion or politics.

Boro Stojanovic pleaded guilty to lying on the immigration forms and pleaded guilty in September and was sentenced Dec. 11 in federal court in Orlando. A judge gave him two years of probation and a $500 fine.

Pavich is representing two men in Illinois who have yet to go to trial. He thinks the government was waiting on the mass prosecutions in Tampa to wrap up before proceeding.

None of the St. Petersburg men were charged with direct participation war crimes, but instead with denying their Serb military service on immigration papers.

Pavich called the applications confusing in English. They had to be translated to Serbo-Croatian for the men. But he said prosecutors never proved that the translations were accurate.

Disclosing their military service would not have made a difference, and the men still would have been allowed into the United States because they were refugees, said Assistant Federal Public Defender Adam Allen, the attorney for two local men.

"It's kind of like a no harm, no foul situation," Allen said. "Yet they're prosecuting them and ripping their families apart."

Pavich saw the cases as an immigration issue, not a criminal one. Even with acquittals, he expects the government to seek deportation.

Last Sunday, four of the men gathered at St. Sava on 77th Avenue N with their families. They said through a translator they felt relieved the criminal charges are behind them.

They described their feelings since the trials ended as "ideal," "excellent" and "positive."

"The justice system prevailed," said Bilic, one of the acquitted.

"It's enough to say I couldn't sleep until the verdict was reached," said Zdravko Kordic, 54, acquitted in August. "I don't understand the language. I don't understand the way everything works, but in the end, people are people."

Feeling thankful, Ostoja Saric, 49, said he just wants to live his life, continue working and be left alone.

At the request of their attorneys, the men did not say much about the outstanding immigration issue.

Said Krsmanovic: "We're hoping and praying that the immigration problem will disappear."

* * *

In the last decade, about 3,000 Serbs ended up in St. Petersburg with the help of churches and relief organizations after a civil war among Croatian Catholics, Bosnian Muslims and Christian Orthodox Serbs tore apart the former Yugoslavia.

Believers of all three faiths entered the conflict. Some joined willingly, others did not.

After the St. Petersburg men were arrested, the Serbian community rallied around four who were St. Sava members, raising more than $100,000 to offset their legal costs.

Neither Allen nor Pavich would say how much it cost to prepare their defenses. Allen said that in his office, three lawyers and one investigator worked on his cases for more than a year.

St. Sava's church board president Scott Raspopovich said families were asked to dig deep to help the men find attorneys with immigration experience. Many people gave $500 to $1,000.

"Everybody had to fear they might be next," he said.

The men's wives and girlfriends put up their homes as collateral to bail them out of jail. Their families took out loans.

In the end, Raspopovich said legal success came as a result of two things: "We had attorneys who could convey the truth."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Melanie Ave can be reached at or 727 893-8813. Kevin Graham can be reached at or (813) 226-3433.

The accused The accused St. Petersburg Serbians: Sekula Bilic, 37, a roofer, married father of three. Acquitted by a jury Aug. 23. Jadranko Gostic, 44, a prebuilt home construction worker. Discussing a deal to voluntarily give up his U.S. citizenship and leave the country in exchange for charges being dropped. Zdravko Kordic, 54, a machine operator, married father of two. Acquitted by a jury Aug. 8. Strahinja Krsmanovic, 59, machine operator, married father of three. Acquitted by a jury Nov. 30. Branko Popic, 59, a factory worker, married father of two. After two hung juries, prosecutors dropped charges in September. Ostoja Saric, 49, air-conditioning worker, married father of two. Never went to trial. Charges dropped in October.

[Last modified December 15, 2007, 23:28:05]

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