ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — The Ethiopian jail guard suspected of torturing and maiming political prisoners during that country's "Red Terror" era came to the United States in 2004 under a false identity, seeking asylum and claiming he would be persecuted if he returned home.
He lived comfortably in Denver until one day in 2011 when another Ethiopian who recognized him outside a cafe confronted him with the words, "I think I know you."
And that's how Kefelegne Alemu Worku, convicted last year of identity theft and immigration fraud, came to the attention of federal law enforcement authorities.
The government would like to see that happen more often.
A Justice Department lawyer recounted Worku's case at a recent presentation for refugee advocates, part of an outreach to encourage the reporting of human-rights abusers hiding in plain sight. The hope is to raise the profile of a relatively new prosecution unit and to make refugees comfortable with helping investigators — a major challenge in human-rights criminal cases.
Part of preventing atrocities "is accountability for what people have done," Teresa McHenry, chief of the department's Human Rights and Special Prosecutions section, said in an interview.
The cases are challenging, costly and not always successful. They require prosecutors to reconstruct crime scenes from other countries that are sometimes decades old and to rely on witnesses who may be scattered across the globe. Advocates say they wish prosecutors would bring more cases. Defense lawyers criticize the Justice Department for selectively prosecuting their clients when others may be equally culpable, and for using witness testimony they argue is not always credible.
"There's a whole layer of doubt in the reliability of witnesses who now, 20 years later, talk about this stuff," said Mark Howard, who defended a woman convicted of fraudulently obtaining U.S. citizenship by lying about her role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide."