Dragan Djuric still remembers the precise date: July 27, 2011. As the clock approached midnight in Serbia, his cellphone rang. “It was a friend from Canada,” he recalls. “He told me: ‘Dragan, Dragan, please go on the Internet. Your picture is on the news. They are looking for you.’ ”
Djuric thought his friend was joking. He wasn’t.
From his computer screen on the other side of the Atlantic, Djuric soon saw what thousands already had: his name and mug shot featured on a new, FBI-style “Wanted” list aimed at finding and deporting 30 suspected war criminals hiding in Canada. Posted alongside his colour photograph were his date of birth (Dec. 8, 1970), his last known city of residence (Kitchener, Ont.), and a sweeping press release from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Stephen Harper’s government, the headline proclaimed, “will not tolerate war criminals in our communities.”
“It’s a big mistake,” Djuric says now, smoking a cigarette. “I am not in Canada.” In fact, he says he hasn’t lived here since 2003, when two federal employees joined him on his flight back to Belgrade, via Milan. “They know I was deported,” he insists. “They gave me my passport and tell me: ‘Good luck, bye.’ ”
The CBSA will not discuss individual files, other than the scant information already released online. But it appears Djuric’s story is accurate. Questioned by Maclean’s about his version of events, the Canada Border Services Agency responded by suddenly deleting his photo from the list—2½ years after it first appeared. “Mr. Djuric’s case has been reviewed and his personal information will be removed from its ‘Wanted’ website,” the agency said in a written statement. “The CBSA cannot comment any further on its operations.”
If Canadian escorts did drop him off in Serbia more than a decade ago, it’s hard to imagine how Djuric landed on a list of illegal immigrants wanted for deportation. But his case raises a much larger question: How hard is the federal government actually looking for these war-crimes fugitives?
Maclean’s found Dragan Djuric. Why couldn’t Canadian authorities?
Foreigners who commit atrocities abroad are not welcome in Canada and, every year, the Immigration and Refugee Board issues dozens of departure orders against people deemed to be complicit in crimes against humanity. Some vanish—choosing a life on the run over a life outside Canada—and when Ottawa first launched its “Wanted” website, officials chose to publicize 30 men whose trails had grown especially cold. Jason Kenney, the immigration minister at the time, said each of them had “gone off the grid,” and “conventional investigatory tactics” had failed to turn up any leads.
Yet a Maclean’s investigation (a basic search through publicly available court records, and follow-up phone calls to friends and relatives) not only tracked down one of the missing men, but cast doubt on Ottawa’s claim that the CBSA has done all it can to locate them. Nobody contacted for this article—including the Ontario family that sponsored Djuric’s original visit to Canada—has ever been approached by authorities. “When we saw the list, we thought that, sooner or later, someone is going to knock on our door and ask questions about him,” one relative says. “But it never happened.”
Djuric is now 43 years old, his hair much greyer than the young man in the mug shot. He says he operated a small company after leaving Canada, importing and exporting construction materials and other goods between Serbia and Slovenia. But when Ottawa posted his image in the summer of 2011—and Serbian media picked up the story—he lost all his contracts. “I go in a coffee bar and everybody is staring at newspapers, a big picture and name: ‘War criminal stays in Canada,’ ” he says. “They see my name and they tell me: ‘Dragan, sorry, my company is not working with your company.’ ”
Now living in Celje, Slovenia, Djuric agreed to speak to Maclean’s because he was desperate to have his face erased from the webpage. He insists he is not a war criminal—and, more important, that he’s not on the lam in Canada. “You put it in newspapers, on TV, on CBSA, on everything,” he says. “ ‘That person is not in Canada.’ ”
For Harper’s tough-on-crime Conservatives, the Wanted website is as much a public-relations campaign as a law-enforcement tool. Tips have led authorities to nearly a dozen suspected war criminals, with each new arrest trumpeted in a fresh press release. The list has since expanded to include other categories of non-citizen fugitives, including foreigners wanted for deportation because they committed serious crimes in Canada. Last month, in a news release marking the 50th arrest triggered by the list, the CBSA’s vice-president of operations described the program as “a continued source of pride for this agency.”
But in Dragan Djuric’s case, officials have little to be proud of. One of their most wanted—if he even deserved that label in the first place—was literally hiding in plain sight.
Djuric’s arrival in Canada wasn’t a proud moment for the feds, either. He lied his way into the country, even though an immigration officer suspected he was doing just that.
It was late 1999, a few months after NATO fighter jets annihilated Yugoslavian targets and brought an end to the Kosovo War. Living in a Serbian village near Pancevo, a city badly damaged by the air strikes, Djuric asked Ottawa for permission to visit a cousin in Hamilton so he could attend a baptism.
“He never visited before,” a Citizenship and Immigration officer wrote in FOSS, the department’s central database. “Why now[?]” (The notes, normally confidential, were disclosed as part of Djuric’s eventual appeal to Federal Court.) “Due to the extremely bad situation in [Yugoslavia] and in that area at the moment, I have concerns about his incentive to return there if allowed to enter,” the officer continued. “Could be looking for more durable solutions for his future family situation. Too risky, refused.”
Djuric promptly reapplied for a two-week visitor visa, telling the immigration department he was planning to get married on Christmas Day, 1999, and that his trek to Ontario “would be his last trip as a single man.” He provided proof of employment, details of the Serbian property he owned, and a promise to return home in time for the wedding ceremony.
Apparently, that was evidence enough. “Well, the family property is certainly very big,” an immigration officer later wrote. “Could be well-off family. As he swears he will return for his wedding, will risk it.”
The officer’s original hunch was correct. Djuric had no intention of going back to the former Yugoslavia and, days after landing in Toronto, he filed a refugee claim.
In his application, Djuric admitted to being a member of the Serbian Volunteer Guard, a notorious paramilitary unit commonly known as Arkan’s Tigers. Led by Zeljko Raznatovic—a wealthy, ruthless Serb who was later indicted for war crimes at The Hague, but assassinated before he ever faced trial—the Tigers were responsible for widespread ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian and Croatian conflicts of the early 1990s. By all accounts, the Tigers raped, robbed and slaughtered scores of civilians.
Canada refuses to be a safe haven for war criminals, a long-standing policy enshrined in law. But how Ottawa enforces that policy depends on the specific case. Although the government does have the legal authority to prosecute a war-crimes suspect who arrives in Canada, it’s a costly option, especially since the evidence must be strong enough to withstand the scrutiny of our Western court system. To date, only two people in Canada have been tried for foreign war crimes, with both prosecutions linked to the Rwandan genocide. (The first accused, Désiré Munyaneza, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2009; the other, Jacques Mungwarere, was recently acquitted, even though the presiding judge said he is “probably guilty” of participating in civilian massacres.)
In the vast majority of cases, the government relies on immigration law, not criminal law, to deal with war-crimes suspects—by denying them entry in the first place, and attempting to deport them if they still manage to get here. According to the latest annual stats (from April 1, 2010, to March 31, 2011), the Canada Border Services Agency investigated 680 refugee claimants for potential complicity in crimes against humanity; of those, the CBSA intervened in 88 cases, urging the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) to deny their claims on the grounds of Canada’s no-safe-haven policy.
Although the onus is on the government to produce evidence, the burden of proof is not nearly as high as for a criminal trial. The IRB must find “serious reasons for considering” that a claimant committed foreign atrocities, a legal threshold that is far lower than both the criminal standard (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) and the civil standard (“on a balance of probabilities”).
Simply put, the government does not need to prove that a specific claimant pulled a trigger or dug a mass grave. For immigration purposes, a person can be found complicit if: he was a member of an organization with a “limited, brutal purpose”; if he handed over prisoners to be tortured; or even if he merely shared information with known human rights abusers. As the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in a precedent-setting decision, complicity rests “on the existence of a shared common purpose and the knowledge that all parties in question may have of it.”
In Djuric’s case, the Immigration and Refugee Board agreed with the government, concluding there were “serious reasons for considering” he was complicit in war crimes or crimes against humanity. The written judgment, released in late 2002, remains confidential, but Djuric’s connection to Arkan’s Tigers was clearly enough to quash his hope of staying in Canada.
Renting a Kitchener apartment at the time, Djuric appealed his deportation order in Federal Court. Though he never filed the necessary paperwork, leading to an eventual dismissal, he did type a one-page letter, asking the court for an opportunity to lead “a quiet life” without the “stress that someone will knock on my door in the middle of the night.”
“Give me a chance to find a lawyer who will represent me,” he wrote. “I would be a happiest man in the whole world if you just give me that chance for peace in my life.”
Djuric claims he was a telecommunications specialist and never killed anyone during his service with Arkan’s Tigers. “No, no,” he says now, when asked if he is a war criminal. “I don’t kill nobody, but I see a couple people kill persons. It’s war, no?”
Again, Djuric has never been charged with a war-crimes offence; he was deemed inadmissible to Canada according to the IRB’s legal threshold, not because of a conviction in court. But when it comes to his inclusion on the Wanted list, his conduct during the Yugoslav Wars is essentially a footnote. War criminal or not, there is no dispute about what happened next: He was refused asylum in Canada, somehow vanished from Ottawa’s radar, and declared a fugitive.
And Maclean’s, not federal agents, was able to track him down.
In numerous interviews from Slovenia, Djuric described himself as the victim of a massive misunderstanding. He says he was arrested by the CBSA in early November 2003, seven months after his Federal Court case was dismissed. After a few days in custody, he claims, he was on a commercial jet back to Belgrade, accompanied by two Canadian escorts who agreed not to handcuff him as long as he behaved. “I left Canada in 2003,” he says. “They know.”
Asked for documentation that confirms his story—a plane ticket, perhaps—Djuric says he has none. “I have no stamp in my passport,” he says. “I no have nothing. They said: ‘Everything is in the computer and you have no problem.’ ”
One thing, though, is certain: Djuric is furious at the Canadian government for destroying his reputation. Friends and relatives shunned him after seeing his mug shot on the web. His family home in Serbia was badly vandalized. And, even though the CBSA has suddenly removed his face from its website, the rest of the Internet has forever branded him a war criminal. “Every time I check, it’s my picture more,” he says. “I am here in Slovenia, broke. I have no papers, nothing. I lose everything after that information.”
The CBSA will not discuss what it specifically did to try to find Dragan Djuric—or any other fugitive listed on the site. A spokesman would only say that “in some cases, the CBSA has exhausted all investigative leads” and that enlisting the public’s help is the only available option. But, in Djuric’s case, at least, there were clearly other leads to follow. In fact, when Djuric learned a Maclean’s reporter was asking about him in Canada, he seized the chance to prove he wasn’t hiding here. “I don’t know what else to do,” he says.
If nothing else, his mug shot has finally vanished from the webpage, quietly deleted two days after Christmas. But, like the few dozen faces that remain, a full explanation is still missing.