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Political Theater of Hasenfus Trial Fills the Bill Until Soviet Circus Comes to Town

November 02, 1986|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — A 23-year-old secretary stood at the back of the Popular Anti-Somocista Tribunal, craning her neck around television cameras and photographers for a glimpse of the tall, blond American on trial. All she could manage was a view of his wife.

"She's very pretty, isn't she?" Maritza Gomez said with a hint of awe.

Among the other spectators to Eugene Hasenfus' trial Saturday were three Latin American novelists, teen-agers from a neighborhood school, a newspaper delivery boy and a Danish worker who is here to show solidarity with the Nicaraguan revolution.

At least until the Soviet circus returns to Managua this week, the Hasenfus trial is about the best show in town.

Not Like U.S. Courts

The revolutionary tribunal where Hasenfus is being tried for flying arms to the contras, the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels, bears little resemblance to the somber courts of the United States. The casual, sometimes chaotic Managua courtroom seems equally distant from the bloody war that Hasenfus is accused of supplying.

There is little security in the steamy courtroom, whose doors and windows stay open to catch any breeze. Passers-by peek in from time to time, and the uniformed guards, who can be seen half-dozing through the hours of testimony, are unarmed.

The judge and lawyers wear sport shirts. Spectators, swatting flies and restless in their metal folding chairs, wander outside, sometimes returning with a Coca-Cola or sandwich.

The clack of the court secretary's manual typewriter and the rumble of trucks outside often drown out the proceedings for listeners in the back of the room.

TV Lights Add to Heat

Hot television lights are ablaze in the front, where the prosecuting and defense attorneys sit at a table with the tribunal president, the typing secretary and the current witness. Hasenfus and his two interpreters sit to the side.

On the wall behind them is a multicolored mural depicting anguished mothers and a boy carrying flowers--homage to victims of the war between the right-wing guerrillas and the Marxist-led Sandinista government. A banner within the mural reads, "For These Dead. . . . For These Dead We Vow to Defend the Victory."

The tribunal was established by emergency decree to try political cases after the fall of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Its early cases were for those accused of belonging to Somoza's dreaded National Guard. Now the defendants are accused of fighting for the contras, who are led in part by some of Somoza's old guardsmen.

Normally, cases before the tribunal are closed, not only to the press, but to the defendant's family as well. In this case, however, the colorful mural is a backdrop to a stage for political theater.

Has Admitted Guilt

Hasenfus, 45, from Marinette, Wis., was aboard a C-123 cargo plane carrying arms and ammunition to the contras when it was shot down Oct. 5. He parachuted to safety; three others on board, including the American pilot and co-pilot, were killed.

Hasenfus and his attorney have admitted that he is guilty of running guns to the rebels, but his lawyers will try to prove that he did not do so on behalf of the U.S. government and, therefore, is not a terrorist as charged.

With the copious evidence in the prosecution's case--and a 90% conviction rate in the court--a guilty verdict seems virtually guaranteed.

"Whenever you have a crime that is so obvious, the trial seems superfluous," said Argentine novelist Osvaldo Soriano. "They are just fulfilling the law of the land. But can you imagine what would happen if they didn't try him? Or can you imagine what would happen if the situation were reversed and a Nicaraguan plane fell in U.S. territory?"

But whereas the trial is a good show for people like Maritza Gomez, another observer angrily called it a spectacle.

'Not My Enemy'

"There is a war for power. The Sandinistas have power, and the contras want to get power," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "Hasenfus is the Sandinistas' enemy. He is not my enemy."

Jockeying for the best shot in the courtroom, international cameramen shove and hit each other. One U.S. television network had three camera crews present on a day Hasenfus was to testify.

The case has been a propaganda bonanza for both the Sandinistas and for defense attorney Enrique Sotelo Borgen, an opposition politician who ordinarily receives scant attention from the local or international media.

During the trial, the Sandinistas have been able to show the world evidence of what they call "imperialist aggression" against Nicaragua.

The downed C-123 carried a number of documents indicating links to the CIA, and Hasenfus has claimed in interviews that he believes he was working in a CIA operation. The U.S. government denies any direct involvement with the supply mission, but the crash provided the outline for a private, international network of aid to the contras through the U.S.-allied countries of El Salvador and Honduras.

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