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Hasenfus Receives 30-Year Sentence : American Gets Maximum Penalty After Nicaragua Terrorism Conviction

November 16, 1986|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — American prisoner Eugene Hasenfus, shot out of the sky on a supply mission to U.S.-backed rebels in Nicaragua, was convicted Saturday of terrorism and related charges and sentenced to the maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

Hasenfus, 45, from Marinette, Wis., sat stoically in the People's Anti-Somocista Tribunal as the lengthy verdict was read first in Spanish and then in English. When informed by Tribunal President Reynaldo Monterrey that he had to make an immediate decision on whether to appeal the verdict, Hasenfus said he would appeal.

Hasenfus' wife, Sally, also impassive in the hot, crowded courtroom, later made an emotional plea to President Daniel Ortega for mercy.

Ortega has left open the possibility of a pardon for Hasenfus, but government officials say that decision has not been made. Diplomats and officials of the leftist Sandinista government said they do not expect a pardon to be granted soon.

Victim of Policy

In a speech at an air force promotion ceremony Saturday, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega portrayed Hasenfus as a victim of U.S. policy and referred to him as the "father of a family." Ortega said the tribunal was condemning "not the citizen Hasenfus, but the irrational, unjust policy of the current U.S. Administration."

Hasenfus, a former U.S. Marine, was the cargo handler and sole survivor on an American-piloted C-123 cargo plane shot down by a Sandinista soldier Oct. 5 in southern Nicaragua. Pilots William J. Cooper and Wallace B. Sawyer died in the crash along with a Nicaraguan radio operator.

The plane was carrying rifles, grenades, ammunition and other military supplies to the right-wing Nicaraguan guerrillas, called contras, who are trying to overthrow the Marxist-led Sandinistas.

The tribunal convicted Hasenfus on charges of terrorism and illicit association for criminal purposes and on two counts of violating a law on public order and security. The public security charge carries the 30-year sentence, which is the maximum penalty under Nicaraguan law. The sentences are to run concurrently.

Monterrey, the tribunal president, said the conviction was based on Hasenfus' written and oral confessions, the testimony of soldiers who shot down the plane and captured him, an examination of the crash site, and arms and documents from the airplane.

Incriminating Documents

Hasenfus and the two pilots carried scores of incriminating documents, including identification cards, business cards and flight logs that provided a blueprint for the U.S.-supported contra supply network through U.S.-allied El Salvador and Honduras.

Hasenfus admitted to the tribunal and to U.S. journalists that he made a total of 10 supply flights out of Ilopango Military Air Base in El Salvador and Aguacate Air Base in Honduras to supply contra forces in Nicaragua.

In reading the decision, Monterrey said the tribunal was convinced that Hasenfus worked for the CIA in the supply missions.

Backed Off Link to CIA

In his written confession, Hasenfus said that two Cuban-Americans who ran the supply operation out of El Salvador "worked for the CIA" and that one of them, Max Gomez, was a personal friend of Vice President George Bush "through the CIA." He told journalists that he believed that he was working for the CIA.

But in court Hasenfus backed off that statement, saying the CIA connection was hearsay that he could not prove.

The U.S. government has denied any connection with the supply flights, saying they were funded primarily by private American supporters. However, telephone logs found in contra safe houses in San Salvador showed calls to a member of the National Security Council staff, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North. Both Bush and Edwin G. Corr, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, admitted to meeting with Max Gomez, whose real name is Felix Rodriguez.

Reacting to the conviction, the U.S. Embassy in Managua said, "The Nicaraguan government orchestrated a show trial at their People's Anti-Somocista Tribunal to convict Hasenfus with a maximum of publicity. Mr. Hasenfus' conviction, thus, comes as little surprise."

Rights Violations Charged

The embassy charged that the Nicaraguan government violated many of Hasenfus' rights of due process by denying him adequate pretrial access to his Nicaraguan lawyer and preventing him from meeting with former U.S. Atty. Gen. Griffin B. Bell, who was representing the family. They charged that the procedural decisions during the trial were biased in favor of the prosecution and that Hasenfus should have been tried in a regular court rather than by the tribunal.

The tribunal was established under an emergency decree to try political cases, originally defendants accused of being members of the National Guard under dictator Anastasio Somoza, whom the Sandinistas ousted in 1979.

Now the tribunal hears cases against accused contras or those accused of aiding them. It has a 90% conviction rate, according to government figures.

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