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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Aid Workers Jailed on Spying Charges

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- A five-judge military panel convicted two Australian aid workers of espionage Saturday and sentenced them to prison.

CARE worker Steve Pratt was sentenced to 12 years, and Peter Wallace was handed a four-year term. A Yugoslav CARE worker, Branko Jelen, received a six-year term.

When the sentences were read out in court, Jelen's mother gasped and cried out, "Why did you do this to my son? He's not guilty."

The three defendants sat silently as the verdicts were read.

International observers had been barred from the trial, which began last Wednesday, but reporters were allowed into the court for the reading of the sentences.

Pratt and Wallace have been in custody since March 31, when they were arrested by Yugoslav authorities for alleged spying when they tried to cross the border into Croatia en route to Kosovo. Border guards apparently became suspicious of their laptop computers, files, and mobile telephones.

"I expected them to be acquitted,'' said Australia's ambassador to Belgrade, Christopher Lamb, who was in court for the sentencing Saturday. "What worries me is why the sentences are as long as they are.''

But, he said, "We're going to win on appeal.''

The panel said prosecutors had not proved a charge that Pratt had organized an espionage ring to which the other two defendants supplied information. But the court said the prosecutors did prove espionage. The maximum sentence the defendants could have received was 15 years each.

Attorneys for the aid workers said they planned to appeal the convictions to the Supreme Military Court. They will have three days to file an appeal once they receive Saturday's verdict in writing.

On April 12, Belgrade television showed Pratt making an apparent confession to collecting information on Kosovo, the embattled province in southern Serbia, and the effects of the NATO bombing campaign. Yugoslavia's government also alleged that local CARE workers were involved in an alleged spy ring.

The Australian government and CARE officials repeatedly have insisted the aid workers are innocent.

The trial went forward despite appeals from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and South African President Nelson Mandela, and several visits by the CARE Australia chief and former Australian prime minister, Malcolm Fraser.

It was believed to be the first espionage trial in Yugoslavia related to the Kosovo conflict. Belgrade had threatened to put on trial three U.S. Army soldiers captured near the Macedonian border March 31 - the same day the CARE workers were arrested - but later released them.

Australia stepped up diplomatic efforts Monday to overturn the verdicts, with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer urging Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to release Pratt and Wallace as an act of compassion and called Ambassador Dragan Dragojlovic to the parliament in Canberra to lodge a protest.

"We would like the government of President Milosevic, and President Milosevic himself, to treat these two aid workers with at least the humanity that the aid workers have been treating the people of Yugoslavia with," Downer said in parliament.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said he would consider any request for help in securing their release provided the aid workers were not involved in espionage. "If I am persuaded that something can be done ... then I would not refuse a suggestion that I should become involved in some way," Gorbachev, in Australia for a series of speaking engagements, told reporters.

"I hope that the Australian aid workers are bona fide and ... not involved in any activities such as espionage of which they are being accused, and I believe the Australian government can act to protect them," he said through an interpreter.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said earlier Monday that diplomacy was the most appropriate course of action.