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Yugoslavia Opens Case Against 3 American Soldiers

April 3, 1999

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: April 3, 1999
Author: Guy Dinmore ; Joan Biskupic

Yugoslavia began criminal proceedings yesterday against three U.S. soldiers captured on the border with Macedonia, but authorities did not say what charges the Americans would face or whether they would be treated as prisoners of war as the United States has demanded.

Yugoslavia’s official news agency Tanjug said officials began gathering evidence against the soldiers — U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24; Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25; and Spec. Steven M. Gonzales, 21.

Jovica Jovanovic, a judge in the province of Kosovo in the Yugoslav republic of Serbia, was quoted as saying court proceedings had begun. It was not clear whether the three prisoners had appeared in court, but it was considered likely that they are being held in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, because Jovanovic is based there. Lawyers in Belgrade speculated the men could be charged with “waging aggression,” which carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years, or espionage, which has a maximum penalty of 20 years.

The three U.S. servicemen were captured Wednesday and paraded on state television early Thursday. Belgrade said they were captured on the Yugoslav side of the border, while the United States has said it is investigating where the three were when captured. Either way, the United States has strongly protested the soldiers’ detention and said it will hold Yugoslavia accountable for their well-being.

The military court may first rule on whether the men are regarded as POWs, depending on whether it views the NATO force in Macedonia as involved in the current NATO military campaign against Yugoslavia. Yugoslav legal experts said the three could still face criminal proceedings even if defined as POWs. But U.S. legal experts said a trial could violate one of the most fundamental rules of international warfare, the Geneva Convention. It protects soldiers from being prosecuted for their activities related to combat and provides several safeguards for any case brought against a POW. The 1949 treaty dictates that a soldier be represented by a qualified lawyer of his own choice, allowed an interpreter and be able to call witnesses. It also says the lawyer must have at least two weeks to prepare a defense. International law experts said yesterday that any set of charges against the soldiers would violate the Geneva Convention, signed by the United States and Yugoslavia.

“What most people don’t realize is that the essence of being a POW is immunity from prosecution,” American University law professor Robert K. Goldman said. The Clinton administration’s initial response Thursday to news of the soldiers’ capture was confused. President Clinton and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen initially had declared that the Yugoslavs had illegally abducted the soldiers, and they were not POWs — which might have obscured their protection under international law. By day’s end, however, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said the administration was considering them POWs and therefore covered by the Convention. Legal experts agreed the soldiers were POWs even though the United States has not declared war on Yugoslavia. The convention itself says it “shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise” between signatories. In Macedonia yesterday, the soldiers’ commanding officer said the three were part of a frontier “screen” to provide early warning of a possible Yugoslav attack. The officer, Col. Jim Shufelt, said the three men may have been ambushed inside Macedonia and then fled into Yugoslavia at the unmarked and ill-defined border. He rejected claims from Macedonian officials that the three strayed accidentally across the border. “My feeling is something happened in Macedonia and they were pushed out,” said Shufelt. Still, he said, the investigation continues. “We won’t really know until we talk to the men,” he said. Dinmore reported from Belgrade and Biskupic from Washington. Correspondent Daniel Williams in Petrovic, Macedonia, contributed to this report.

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