(CN) – A federal judge has stripped U.S. citizenship from a 46-year-old native of what was once Yugoslavia, finding she concealed having joined a firing squad and executed six unarmed civilians and prisoners of war in the 1990s Balkan conflict.
U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez found Sammy Rasema Yetisen, aka Zolja, lied when she applied for refugee status in 1996 and on her U.S. citizenship application. She concealed her role with a special-forces unit with the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to a 12-page opinion filed Feb. 28 and announced by the Justice Department on Tuesday.
The Zulfikar special-forces unit targeted the village of Trusina in 1993, aiming to eradicate the residents because of their Christian faith and Croatian ethnicity.
“They executed six Bosnian Croats, three prisoners of war and three civilians, by firing squad,” wrote Hernandez.
Prosecutors said Yetisen shot civilians a second time to ensure they were dead. The soldiers went on to kill 16 more Bosnian Croats in what would later be referred to as the “Trusina massacre.”
In one of her responses included in the opinion, Yetisen said the U.S. government does not “understand war” and that she was only following orders.
“Yes I was in the civil war. I was 20 years old and a female in an army of men when we went into Trusina. The government writes like I was giving orders, but I was not, I did what the commander told us to do,” Yetisen said. She acknowledged fighting for the Bosnian army from 1992 to 1995.
Three years after the massacre, Yetisen sought refugee status in Austria. Yetisen said she was persecuted in Bosnia because she is Muslim. Yetisen said when she was no longer able to be a soldier, she was demobilized and left without any food or shelter by the army.
“I dismissed myself and went to Austria where I have no one,” Yetisen said.
But later she would omit her military history when she sought U.S. citizenship.
Prosecutors said Yetisen lied on both her refugee and citizenship applications by concealing her participation in the massacre. Yetisen also lied when she said she did not persecute anyone based on their race, religion or political affiliation and had no record of military service.
She entered the United States as a refugee in 1996, and in 2002 became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Nearly a decade later, a U.S magistrate judge in Oregon held Yetisen was extraditable on a first-degree murder charge brought by the prosecutor’s office of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In 2012, Yetisen pleaded guilty of “participating in the summary execution” of six Bosnian Croats and served five years and six months in prison before returning to Oregon upon release. But her troubles weren’t over, as the United States began proceedings to strip her of U.S. citizenship.
While Yetisen said she was not aware that her actions during the Balkans conflict were crimes, and when she learned they were she pleaded guilty, Hernandez said ignorance is no excuse under the law.
“As applied here, defendant’s contention that she did not know she had broken the law until she was extradited to Bosnia does not save her from a finding of a lack of good moral character. Similarly, even if it were true that she never lied on her refugee status and citizenship forms, that would not mitigate the fact that she committed a serious crime involving moral turpitude – murder,” he wrote.
“The fact that she did not know that her actions technically constituted a crime is irrelevant.”
Hernandez also rejected arguments that Yetisen has established a life in the United States and has a son who is a U.S. citizen..
Another soldier who was involved in the Trusina massacre, Edin Dzeko, was denaturalized in 2018 for similar offenses, including the concealment of his criminal history, military service and persecutory acts during his application process. Dzeko is currently serving out a 13-year sentence in Bosnia and Herzegovina