Ten years ago, when his native Bosnia was wracked by bloody ethnic warfare, Muhamed Sacirbey was able to fly from New York to Sarajevo and back without a moment’s fear. Today the war is over, yet Sacirbey, a former Bosnian foreign minister, is scared to go home.
Once the Balkan nation’s most visible spokesman, Sacirbey has been in a New York City jail for the past nine months, awaiting possible extradition to Bosnia, where he is being investigated on suspicion of embezzling public funds while he headed his country’s United Nations mission.
Sacirbey says the accusations have been cooked up by political opponents at home, mainly ethnic Serbs who opposed his advocacy of Muslim rights, but also Muslims who disliked his support for multiethnic democracy in the divided nation. He suspects, too, that his foes may have gotten help from some current and former American officials who find him inconvenient.
“I am afraid for my personal safety in Bosnia,” Sacirbey told the Forward during a 45-minute interview at the Metropolitan Correction Center in downtown Manhattan, where he is being held without bond. “I am certain I would not be judged fairly over there.”
Some former American officials suspect he is right. The Bosnian extradition request would not even have been forwarded from the State Department to the Justice Department, one former ranking official said, if not for the “lack of adult supervision at the State Department.”
Sacirbey was arrested last March at his Long Island family home by local police, acting on a Bosnian arrest warrant. Bosnian officials say he is suspected of stealing some $2.3 million from the Bosnian U.N. mission in 2000.
An extradition hearing is scheduled for December 23 before U.S. District Judge Frank Maas of Manhattan federal court. A ruling is expected in the following weeks. If the extradition request is upheld, the secretary of state will make the final decision on whether to carry it out.
Born in 1956 in Bosnia, then a part of Yugoslavia, Sacirbey settled in Cleveland with his family in 1967 and became a U.S. citizen at 19. He was working as a Wall Street lawyer in 1992 when his native land, newly independent, asked him to represent it at the U.N. He threw himself into the Bosnian cause, drawing on a wide range of contacts in business, entertainment and especially in the Jewish community to help build a popular movement. His good looks and Midwestern accent made him a media favorite. In 1997, in one of his signal moments, he organized a massive outdoor concert in Sarajevo featuring the Irish rock group U2.
“He was all over the place, on TV, in Washington,” said Danilo Turk, a senior U.N. official who worked with Sacirbey and has a high opinion of him. “He made a lot of friends, but he also made enemies.”
Sacirbey believes old grudges from the Bosnian war have come back to haunt him. He mentions one name repeatedly: Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who was the main architect of the Dayton peace agreements that ended the Bosnian war and is now the frontrunner to become secretary of state if a Democrat is elected president in 2004.
Sacirbey claims that in addition to some public spats near the end of the war, he upset Holbrooke with his recent accusations that Western officials had failed to prevent massacres during the war.
“I believe this all started when my enemies came to power in Bosnia,” he said. “It was then exploited by my detractors here. I am not saying Colin Powell is out to get me, but there are officials loyal to Holbrooke in the State Department who see this as an opportunity to hurt my credibility.”
Holbrooke said he did not even know Sacirbey was in jail. When told of the allegations, he laughed.
“He is the first person to say I have any influence in the State Department of the Bush administration,” he then said. “I have nothing to do with this and it is not my problem.”
He recalled meeting Sacirbey in 1992 and remembered his passionate and articulate advocacy of the Bosnian cause.
“He really is the one who got me into it,” Holbrooke said. However, he said he realized over the years that Sacirbey was an “intriguer.”
“He had a lot of talent but he overreached,” he said. “He just inflicted this on himself.”
At Dayton, during a brief stint as Bosnian foreign minister, Sacirbey angered Holbrooke by demanding that war criminals be brought to international justice. Western officials were trying to cut a deal with the prime candidate for a war crimes trial, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Returning to the U.N. post shortly after Dayton, he continued to press for international trials. He took up the cause of the International Criminal Court, serving as vice chairman of the court’s preparatory committee. He was active in pressing for genocide trials in Rwanda. He was instrumental in prompting the world body to assemble a comprehensive report on the August 1995 massacre of some 7,000 Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces in the enclave of Srebrenica.
While the Srebrenica report, issued in 1999, pointed to U.N. and NATO inaction in the face of the imminent slaughter, Sacirbey still was not satisfied. Pressing for more action, he publicly accused top Western diplomats and military officials of giving Serb leaders a “yellow light” shortly before the Srebrenica massacre.
Sacirbey contends that a mixture of current diplomatic tradeoffs between Washington and Sarajevo, plus past run-ins with U.S. officials, help explain why the State Department forwarded the Bosnian extradition request to the Justice Department, leading to his arrest. “I am not saying there is one big conspiracy,” he said. “Just little coincidences meeting little conspiracies.”
He points to three main events that took place around the time of his arrest, leading him to suspect a possible quid pro quo. One was the Bosnian government transfer of six suspected Al Qaeda operatives to American custody, despite a Bosnian court ruling barring the handover. Another was Bosnia’s decision to sign an agreement exempting Americans from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court. Finally, Bosnia was the first Muslim-majority country to support the American war in Iraq last spring.
Sacirbey’s supporters are especially incensed that the State Department would hand over Sacirbey, who remains an American citizen, to a court system that the department itself describes as ineffective and subject to political influence in its latest annual human rights report.
A spokesperson for the State Department’s office of international affairs, which handles extraditions, said the department would not comment because the case was still in a judicial phase.
The Sacirbey affair began in mid-2000, when auditors from the Bosnian Foreign Ministry started raising concerns about the mission’s finances.
Sacirbey left the mission in December 2000. He said his departure had nothing to do with the audit and was due to his deep disenchantment with Bosnian politics and the fact that he was suffering from depression.
The case took a decisive turn in early 2001 when one of Sacirbey’s political rivals, a Bosnian Serb leader named Zlatko Lagumdzija, became foreign minister. Lagumdzija immediately set up a special committee to investigate Sacirbey. The panel was headed by Ivica Misic, Sacirbey’s longtime deputy in New York who had become one of his fiercest adversaries. A Sarajevo judge issued an arrest warrant in late 2001.
Sacirbey claims both men merely wanted to settle scores with him. They could not be reached for comment.
Sacirbey acknowledges that bookkeeping at the mission did not meet Western standards. He says the mission was established under chaotic, emergency conditions and had to conduct costly, diplomatic lobbying and covert activities during the war, often using Sacirbey’s own money. After the Dayton agreement, he said, the mission was forced to keep spending large sums to pay for legal cases in international tribunals. As a mission representing a multiethnic nation at war with itself, much of its activity was divisive within the staff, he said.
He claims that all mission expenditures were made on the direct order of his ally, Bosnian co-president Alija Izetbegovic. To Sacirbey’s dismay, Izetbegovic, who recently died, denied early in the legal process that he had given a green light to all the expenditures.
Still, the case seemed to be going nowhere for more than a year until the police arrested him on March 25, 2003.
In court and in filings, Sacirbey, who is representing himself, asked the American judge to free him on bail to prepare his defense. The judge refused, saying bond in extradition cases is granted only in “special circumstances.”
In addition to denying the accusations, Sacirbey has questioned the jurisdiction of the Bosnian judge in charge and contested the applicability of the extradition treaty invoked.
He has also tried to raise the politics of the case in court. But the prosecutors and judge have insisted they can only examine the validity of the extradition request.
Observers believe Judge Maas will grant the extradition and the case will then bounce back to the State Department for a final decision.
Anticipating the Washington round, Sacirbey and his supporters, led by his American wife Susan, have reached out to some high-powered friends. Topping the list are several prominent neo-conservatives who supported the Bosnian cause in the mid-1990s. Richard Perle, an influential Pentagon adviser, wrote a letter of support for Sacirbey in April, branding him a “man of character.” Another letter was from actor John Malkovich.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who worked with Sacirbey when she was America’s U.N. ambassador, is also reportedly lending some support.
Calls to Albright and Perle for comment were not returned.
One of Sacirbey’s best hopes may come from Bosnia itself, where a new government recently took power. In June, the Bosnian prime minister told CNN that he believed Sacirbey was wrongly accused. However, the Bosnian government just confirmed that it was still seeking to bring Sacirbey to Sarajevo.