America has long been a refuge for people who flee persecution and violence in their homelands. But, as it turns out, this country also has been a safe haven for human rights violators seeking to avoid punishment for their heinous crimes abroad.
Ajay Bhatt, a legal advisor with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with colleagues in ICE’s Human Rights Law Section, are dedicated to locating and removing human rights violators to ensure they cannot escape justice by hiding in the United States.
In 2014 and 2015, Bhatt guided a successful initiative known as Operation No Safe Haven, during which he and his colleagues worked with law enforcement teams from several agencies to identify and arrest more than 70 human rights violators. They now are making sure these individuals are removed from the country and can be held accountable for their actions.
“This operation would not have happened without Ajay,” said Lisa Koven, director of the Human Rights Law Section at ICE. “Ajay got some really scary people off the street. Someone may be able to hide, but Operation No Safe Haven showed that we don’t give up on these cases, because we care about the victims.”
The fugitives arrested include a former Yugoslav man who interrogated victims for a paramilitary organization dedicated to ethnic cleansing, and a man who forcibly sterilized women in Asia. Another case involved a member of a West African revolutionary group that murdered women and children, and had evaded ICE since his order of removal more than a decade ago.
These fugitives were hiding in cities across the country, including San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, New York and Miami, and they were known or suspected of persecution, genocide, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Bhatt has worked as an attorney at ICE for the past 10 years and realized during this time there was a sizable number of individuals facing court orders for their removal who had become fugitives.
Before Operation No Safe Haven, ICE had addressed these cases individually. Bhatt recognized an opportunity to tackle many cases all at once. He sifted through hundreds of ICE files to determine who had deportation orders but had not been removed, and if there were any legal reasons for their continued presence in the U.S.
He worked closely with colleagues at ICE and the departments of Justice and State, as well as with law enforcement agencies across the country, to track down these individuals, enforce the law and arrange for their home country or another country to take them into custody.
“He’s so successful because he understands how to move the machinery,” said Dan Smulow, a Justice Department attorney. “The public benefits from this work without knowing it. He can truly say he made the country a little better each day.”
Once Bhatt and his colleagues finalized the details of various cases, David Collado, a senior ICE official, coordinated the often dangerous task of arresting and detaining the fugitives during multi-day operational roundups in 2014 and another in 2015.
In the case of a Central American rights violator hiding in Los Angeles, enforcement agents found a cache of weapons and ammunition. This individual had served in a military unit implicated in human rights atrocities during the civil war in his country in the 1980s, and had since committed assault and firearms crimes in the U.S.
Bhatt has been passionate about repatriation cases since working at the State Department, where he began as a Presidential Management Fellow in 2001. In 2003 he negotiated his first repatriation case, which led to the deportation of Abdi Ali Nur Mohamed, a Somali military judge who participated in the execution of innocent civilians under the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre.
Including his work with Operation No Safe Haven, Bhatt has been involved in more than 200 human rights-related repatriation cases at both the State Department and ICE.
“Ajay Bhatt is completely dedicated to making sure people don’t get away scot-free,” said Helki Spikle, deputy director of ICE’s Human Rights Law Section.
Some of Bhatt’s earlier cases involved former Nazis hiding in the United States, including John Demjanjuk, who was convicted as an accessory to the murder of 28,060 Jews. Demjanjuk was employed at an automotive plant in Ohio before it was discovered that he had served as a Nazi guard at concentration camps in Poland and Bavaria. In 2009, Demjanjuk was deported to Germany to face justice.
“This work can be stressful at times, but it is truly exciting,” said Bhatt. “Hopefully, by denying safe haven to human rights abusers, Americans can see that we have due process in the United States and we believe in human rights.”