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US Lawmaker Seeks to Crackdown on Suspected War Criminals


A U.S. senator is concerned that the United States has become a safe haven for people who have been involved in war crimes and human rights violations in other countries. Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and Assistant Majority Leader in the Senate, held a hearing Wednesday to consider how the United States can hold such individuals accountable. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The United States is known for being a safe haven for those who have suffered persecution for their political or religious beliefs. But Senator Dick Durbin told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that there is evidence that those who commit human rights violations are also coming to the United States to avoid prosecution for their crimes back home.

"The United States has become a safe haven for notorious war criminals. That is certainly something that is a matter of great concern for all of us," he said.

Durbin highlighted the case of Juan Romagoza Arce, a doctor in El Salvador who was detained and tortured by the Salvadoran National Guard in December 1980.

Romagoza now lives in the United States, where he won a federal civil lawsuit five years ago against two Salvadoran generals who were found responsible for the torture. Those two generals also currently live in the United States - in the U.S. state of Florida. They have never been criminally prosecuted.

Romagoza says he is waging a campaign to bring the generals to justice. "They have not been tried in a penal court either in the United States or in El Salvador, and until that day comes, I will not be silent," he said.

Pamela Merchant, executive director for the Center for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to ending torture, says the Salvadoran generals are two of many human rights abusers who are living comfortably in the United States.

"It is estimated that over 400,000 survivors of politically motivated torture currently reside in the United States, and that roughly 1,000 human rights abusers are here as well. These abusers often live in the exact same community as their victims, which causes extreme anxiety, and undermines justice and accountability movements in their home countries," she said.

Merchant says the strongest message the United States can send to human rights abusers around the world is that it will criminally prosecute them here when their home countries will not.

But Bush administration officials say they are limited by U.S. law in what they can do toward prosecuting suspected war criminals and human rights abusers.

"Due to the fact that human rights violations and atrocities have occurred abroad, law enforcement is often unable to assert U.S. jurisdiction for substantive crime. In some cases, our ability to apply criminal charges that could have been levied in the U.S. may have expired due to the statute of limitations," said Marcy Forman, who is with Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security.

Sigal Mandelker, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department's Criminal Division, says in cases where the United States cannot bring criminal charges, her office seeks to transfer suspects for trial abroad. She cited one example.

"Just recently, an immigration judge in Chicago ordered that Osyp Firishchak be removed from the United States for his role in a Ukrainian police unit that assisted in the annihilation of over 100,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Lviv, Poland, during World War II."

David Scheffer, a law professor at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago, called on the U.S. Congress to pass new laws to address atrocity crimes - something he says many other countries have already done.

"The United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Argentina, Spain, and South Africa have leapt ahead of the United States in terms of their national courts being able to investigate and prosecute the full range of atrocity crimes. France, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Brazil, and Norway are in the process of legislating the incorporation of atrocity crimes into their respective criminal codes," he said.

The Senate has passed legislation sponsored by Senator Durbin that would allow prosecution of non-U.S. citizens for atrocities committed outside the United States. The House is considering similar legislation.