Fairness for GIs held by Serbs?

Army professionalism and intact judicial system may help US soldiers.

Despite the intense hatred of NATO countries here, the three US soldiers captured by the Yugoslav Army are likely to receive humane treatment and a somewhat fair trial, legal experts say.

But they may face stiff penalties.

Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez of Los Angeles, Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone of Smiths Creek, Mich., and Specialist Steven Gonzales of Huntsville, Texas, were captured March 31 by Yugoslav Army forces near the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, where they were part of a NATO peacekeeping force. Under a proclaimed state of war, they could face prison sentences of up to 30 years for "violating" or "jeopardizing" the territorial integrity of a sovereign state, or for "terrorism" or "sabotage."

While US officials initially claimed they may have actually been on friendly Macedonian soil when apprehended, Belgrade officials maintain they were in Yugoslavia. Nor is it any longer debated here that they are "prisoners of war."

It is believed that the three soldiers are being held in Kosovo, but very few facts about the case have been released by officials here. A Yugoslav special military judge has begun investigating the case. No charges have been announced.

Over the weekend, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic referred to the threesome for the first time as prisoners of war, meaning they will likely be protected by international laws regulating treatment of POWs.

Under the 1949 Geneva convention, captured soldiers are guaranteed humane treatment and protection from abuse and public humiliation. They also cannot be tried for normal acts of warfare for which the capturing country's own soldiers would not be charged.

"I am convinced that the American soldiers will not be mistreated," says a Belgrade judge who asked to remain anonymous. "I'm not saying this because I'm so in love with the system here, but because that is not the tradition of our soldiers."

Although many state institutions, such as the police, are virtually in ruins, the judicial system still has a relatively high level of integrity and effectiveness, legal experts say. Also, whereas the Serbian police have a reputation for abusing prisoners, the Army has appeared to be more professional during the last year of war in Kosovo.

In the 1990 Yugoslav Constitution, laws pertaining to POWs were written in accordance with United Nations provisions, and have not been changed even though Yugoslavia is no longer a full member of the UN. And, there is a provision of the law saying that any Yugoslav who abuses POWs can get up to five years in jail.

It appears that Yugoslav officials are not making the soldiers a political issue, although that could change as NATO airstrikes intensify.

With the US embassy in Belgrade having closed before the airstrikes began, negotiations and the defense of the soldiers will be handled by Swedish officials still here. The soldiers will have the right to a lawyer and they should be allowed visits by the International Committee of Red Cross. With civil officials gradually losing ground to military authorities, the status of law here is very much up in the air. The US will likely try to negotiate a release through diplomatic means.

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