WASHINGTON -- Attention former KGB officers: If you were involved in rights abuses during Soviet times and find yourself in the United States, U.S. authorities may be looking for you.
For decades, the U.S. government has been ferreting out alleged Nazi war criminals and other purported rights violators leading quiet lives in the United States, deporting hundreds of individuals suspected of such abuses.
But U.S. immigration officials are also quietly pursuing potential cases against former KGB employees and collaborators who may have engaged in persecutions as part of the notorious Soviet secret police.
A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not specify how many of these investigations are pending, saying only that the number is “less than 10.”
The agency’s officers, however, “continue to monitor cases and information” on former KGB officials “who may have committed or assisted in human rights violations,” the spokesperson said.
The estimated number of KGB officers and employees prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 ranges from nearly 500,000 to more than 700,000, according to the 1994 book “The State Within A State” by Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats, who has written extensively about Soviet security services.
It remains unclear how many of these individuals engaged in what the United States considers human rights violations and then ended up on American soil. But ICE officials did provide a figure for the number of KGB officers “known to have been” linked to such abuses who have been deported from the United States since 1992: precisely one.
On June 7, 2005, the ICE issued a press release on the deportation of a 55-year-old Lithuanian national named Alfonsas Abeliunas, who, according to the agency, was “linked to human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union."
According to the announcement, Abeliunas had entered the United States as a nonimmigrant visitor in October 2000 and was arrested in June 2004 for violating the terms of his visa. A U.S. immigration court found that he had been trained in espionage and had “assisted in the persecution of others while living in Lithuania.”
The press release, which did not mention the KGB, garnered little coverage in the media and does not appear to be available on the ICE's website. But according to KGB archives seized by Lithuania after it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, Abeliunas was a KGB officer who in the early 1980s was tasked with overseeing informants who came into contact with foreigners.
A classified 1982 report produced by senior KGB officials in Lithuania and obtained by RFE/RL states that Abeliunas was tasked with assessing the reliability of these informants, including those pressured to collaborate “using compromising materials.”
The U.S. immigration judge found that Abeliunas also performed surveillance of ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union to prevent them from traveling to Moscow to obtain travel documents, the ICE spokesperson said. Furthermore, his testimony was “inconsistent” regarding the use of debilitating drugs on dissidents during an assignment in a Soviet hospital, the spokesperson said.
Attempts to reach Abeliunas for comment were unsuccessful.
In many cases of alleged war criminals, U.S. authorities secure deportation by proving to a judge that the individual violated immigration laws by concealing facts about his or her past.
Abeliunas was removed from the United States based on a similar technicality rather than on the alleged rights violations themselves. A U.S. judge ordered his deportation because he had failed to register as a foreign agent.
Nonetheless, the U.S. government framed his removal as a victory for the defense of human rights.
“Those who fail to reveal their true past will experience the full weight of the law,” Keith Perniciaro, ICE’s acting special agent-in-charge in Miami, said in announcing Abeliunas’s deportation in 2005. “The United States will not serve as a safe haven for human rights abusers.”
A Spy’s Dilemma
Past service in the KGB or other foreign secret services does not automatically disqualify an individual from obtaining a U.S. visa.
“Of course, you should be expected to get some questions about this; but if it was involvement that did not cause any persecution of others, I wouldn’t worry much about this,” Alena Shautsova, a New York-based immigration lawyer, told RFE/RL.
But those who do hide their KGB pasts could come under scrutiny from the ICE’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit, which uses an array of open-source information techniques to establish whether an individual worked for or collaborated with Soviet state security agencies.
These materials can include 1980s human rights reports from the U.S. State Department or watchdogs like Amnesty International, as well media reports, the ICE spokesperson told RFE/RL.
The unit also brings in expertise from law-enforcement agents, attorneys, intelligence and criminal research specialists, and historians, according to its website
Since 2004, the ICE has arrested more than 250 individuals for violations related to human rights abuses, and it has secured the deportation of more than 640 “known or suspected human rights violators” from U.S. soil, the agency says.
Of course, there’s no guarantee an ex-KGB officer will get caught hiding his or her past.
"If they’re concealing it, well, they’re concealing it," Shautsova said. "That’s why we have spies."