By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
April 22, 2005
But thanks to a new law, government agents now have better ammunition to flush out these reputed bad guys and expel them.
"Human-rights violators are not welcome here," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official Michael Garcia said upon the January announcement of the initial arrest under the new law. It closed a legal loophole that made it all but impossible to deport anyone accused of committing atrocities overseas unless a U.S. immigration law violation could be proved.
The immigration agency, which has a newly invigorated Human Rights Violators Unit, estimates there are as many as 1,100 suspected war criminals living in America.
The unit is now working more than 200 active cases involving people from more than 50 countries who are believed to have engaged in genocide, torture, suppression of religious freedom and other human-rights abuses.
Also soon to be part of the hunt is the Office of Special Investigations, the Department of Justice outfit that, until now, had focused only on former Nazis.
The law - which was championed by Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for five years before Congress finally adopted it in December as part of the intelligence-reform measure - expands the authority of Justice investigators to target anyone suspected of such atrocities.
Among the countries from which the suspected torturers and assassins come are Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Bosnia, South Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda and Argentina.
They are believed to reside in a host of states, including Vermont, New York, California, Florida, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.
The first to be snared under the new law was Kelbessa Negewo, 54, an Ethiopian who said he fled to America in 1988 to escape political persecution back home.
But, according to federal agents, Negewo was anything but a refugee deserving of the political asylum America had granted him. Instead, they allege, Negewo was the former chief of an arm of a brutal Ethiopian dictatorship who oversaw the summary executions and terrible torture of scores of students and other innocent civilians.
Negewo's alleged past came to light when a woman spotted him on his job as a late-night bellhop at an Atlanta hotel. The woman, who was a waitress at the hotel, identified Negewo as the man who in the 1970s in Ethiopia ordered her disrobed, strung up by her ankles and whipped with an electric cord.
The allegations against Negewo _ as those of others accused of war crimes - first publicly surfaced in a lawsuit filed for several of his accusers by the nonprofit Center for Justice and Accountability, in San Francisco. In 1995, a federal judge slapped a $1.5 million civil judgment against Negewo, who contends he is innocent.
Among others under scrutiny around the country:
- Alvaro Rafael Saravia of Modesto, Calif. After 16 years in America, Saravia was held responsible by a federal judge for his role in the assassination of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed while saying Mass in El Salvador in 1980.
According to the judge's September ruling, Saravia helped organize the shooting, which the judge labeled a "crime against humanity" because it was part of a "widespread and systematic" attack against Salvadoran civilians. Saravia has denied the allegations.
- Nicolas Carranza, the retired head of security at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee. A Memphis resident for 19 years, Carranza was sued in federal court in 2003 by the San Francisco center, which alleged he had overseen military squads in El Salvador that killed thousands of Salvadoran civilians in 1979 and 1980. Carranza has denied the allegations.
- Mohamed Ali Samatar, of Fairfax, Va., and Yusuf Abdi Ali, of Alexandria, Va. According to a lawsuit by the center, Samatar is the former prime minister and defense chief of Somalia responsible for, among other atrocities, an aerial bombing blitz that killed thousands of civilians in 1988.
Abdi Ali is accused of commanding a notorious Somali army battalion that executed more than 100 unarmed men in northern Somalia around the same time and tortured hundreds of others.
Both men have denied the allegations.