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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Lawyers Say Pact Prohibits Trial of POWs

Law: Proceedings would be violation of Geneva accords, human rights experts assert.

April 02, 1999|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — Human rights lawyers on Thursday said Yugoslavia's decision to speedily try three captured U.S. soldiers clearly violates the Geneva Convention covering prisoners of war.

Judged against widespread allegations of atrocities by Serbian forces in Kosovo province, the lawyers said, the trial becomes an added travesty.

"We believe any trial taking place of American military prisoners is a violation of guarantees contained in the Geneva Convention and other treaties and standards that are applicable," said Richard Dicker, associate counsel of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "Any way you look at it, these proceedings are a travesty of justice."

"Basically, [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic is putting these military personnel on trial to put the U.S. and NATO on trial for initiating this action," said Paul Hoffman, a human rights law specialist at USC, referring to the ongoing NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia. "They are just being used in a publicity forum."

The Geneva Conventions, a series of treaties signed in Switzerland, cover the humane treatment of soldiers and civilians in wartime. The first convention spelled out the rights of the sick and wounded. Later conventions covered prisoners of war.

After World War II, the conventions were strengthened to codify earlier treaties and to safeguard civilians.

Scholars say the modern law of war was born in the mid-19th century when President Lincoln asked Francis Lieber, a Columbia College professor, to draw up a code of conduct regulating union troops in the Civil War.

Human rights lawyers say that by both historical and modern-day standards, Yugoslavia's decision to try Staff Sgts. Andrew Ramirez and Christopher J. Stone and Spc. Steven Gonzales, who were part of a U.S. Army detachment assigned to a United Nations monitoring force sent to Macedonia in 1993, clearly is illegal.

For one thing, they said, it violates specific provisions of the protocols covering the treatment of prisoners.

According to the Third Geneva Convention, a prisoner of war is entitled to assistance by a prisoner comrade, "to defense by a qualified advocate or counsel of his own choice, to the calling of witnesses and, if he deems necessary, to the services of a competent interpreter."

According to the convention, Yugoslavia is granting the captives insufficient time for pretrial preparation.

Article 105 of the convention decrees that defense lawyers shall have at least two weeks to prepare before the opening of the trial.

In addition, under Article 104, Yugoslavia is required to notify the United States of its decision to try Ramirez, Stone and Gonzales at least three weeks before the opening of court proceedings.

The three grim-faced soldiers were shown, with apparent bruises on their faces, on Serbian television--another possible violation of the convention, which forbids acts of intimidation, insults and public curiosity.

"This is a violation of the laws of war and the most basic standards of any conception of a fair trial," Dicker said. "These violations concentrated in this sham proceeding are taking place in the context of what we see as much more widespread violations of the laws of war and fundamental human rights violations in Kosovo."

President Clinton stressed Thursday that the United States will hold Milosevic personally responsible for the safety of the three captives.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin labeled the trial "obviously ridiculous."

Rubin called the soldiers' abduction "illegal" and said they were carrying out a mission "in a neutral country."

"There is no basis for their detention," Rubin continued. "And under the Geneva Convention, to subject them to some phony trial called a court-martial is just ridiculous."

Rubin added that he was advised by international lawyers that not only should the captives receive medical attention and be protected from "any form of coercion," but they should also gain access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Yugoslavia issued a three paragraph statement Thursday announcing that criminal proceedings would begin today in a military court.

It charged that the captives were from "NATO's U.S. contingent, who were arrested on Yugoslav territory" and were from a reconnaissance detachment based in Germany.

The Clinton administration vigorously challenged that characterization.

U.S. officials said the men had been assigned to a U.N. monitoring force in Macedonia. Last month, China cast a veto in the Security Council against extension of the U.N. monitors because diplomats said Macedonia had economic ties to Taiwan, and the forces in Macedonia had taken on an interim role of monitoring the Yugoslav border.

"There's no question they were there appropriately," Rubin told reporters.

*

Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington and Lisa Meyer in The Times' New York Bureau contributed to this report.

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