Roanoke Co. resident faces extradition on war crimes allegations
Court papers accuse Almaz Nezirovic of torturing Serbian civilians sent to a prison camp.
A former Bosnian prison camp guard now living in Roanoke County was led in handcuffs to a federal courtroom Tuesday, where he was told he faces extradition to his native country on charges of committing war crimes.
Almaz Nezirovic was ordered held without bond during a brief hearing in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.
Court papers unsealed late in the day accuse Nezirovic of torturing Serbian civilians who were sent to a prison camp during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, now known as Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The prisoners were beaten with rifles and batons, starved, ordered to crawl naked on the ground and forced to eat grass soaked with urine, a seven-page complaint charges.
“In these and other ways, the Fugitive participated in torturing and inflicting cruel, inhumane and humiliating treatment on multiple prisoners at the Rabic camp,” the complaint states.
Nezirovic — who had been living quietly as a welder and soccer coach in Roanoke County since immigrating to the United States about 15 years ago — appeared stunned and defiant during his hearing.
“I was very surprised,” he told Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou in broken English.
Wearing a yellow T-shirt and shorts, his long, dark hair tied back in a ponytail, he turned several times to make eye contact with about a dozen family members and friends sitting in the courtroom.
“We love you,” a woman called out as he was led away.
Although the charges against him were filed in 2003 by authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nezirovic had more recently been facing separate but related federal charges in Roanoke.
In June 2011, he was charged with lying on an application for U.S. citizenship and making a false statement during a naturalization interview.
Federal prosecutors said at the time that Nezirovic, 53, indicated on the applications that he had never committed acts for which he could be charged criminally — such as the alleged abuse of prisoners at the war camp.
After his indictment, Nezirovic was allowed to remain free on bond. He had been living in his Roanoke County home without incident until his arrest Tuesday morning on an extradition warrant.
Since the federal charges were filed last year in Roanoke, authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina have decided to prosecute Nezirovic on charges that he committed war crimes in the early 1990s and asked that he be extradited.
That decision apparently takes precedence over the pending federal case in Roanoke, which was set for trial in September.
U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy said his office will present additional evidence supporting the charges to Ballou within 60 days. The judge will then decide whether Nezirovic should be extradited.
In 2004, one year after Nezirovic was charged by the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina with war crimes, U.S. officials refused to extradite him, according to his attorney, public defender Fay Spence.
The more recent extradition efforts apparently came after the Bosnia-Herzegovina government presented additional information to the U.S. State Department.
Nezirovic denies the charges, Spence has written in court documents.
The allegations against Nezirovic are politically motivated and stem from lingering tensions between ethnic and religious groups in the war-torn country, Spence maintains.
During his country’s civil war in the 1990s, Nezirovic was a member of the Croatian Defense Council military force and worked in the Rabic prison camp that held Serb civilians.
As a Bozniak Muslim, Nezirovic wanted no part of the three-way fighting among Serbs, Croatians and Muslims, Spence has written in court documents. But when his homeland of Derventa was invaded by Serb nationalists, Nezirovic said he joined a Croatian paramilitary group as an act of self-defense.
“At no time did Nezirovic detain or mistreat civilians, nor did he mistreat combatant prisoners at the Rabic camp,” a motion filed on his behalf stated.