Sandinistas study their options for US prisoner

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sandinista leaders are pondering their options in the case of captured American Eugene Hasenfus. The choice essentially boils down to either a trial or an act of clemency. Meanwhile, the prisoner is sweating through an interrogation at the hands of military intelligence.

Officials here are tight lipped about how long the Army's investigation of Mr. Hasenfus might last. But his longer term future appears to hang in a balance of domestic and international political factors that the Nicaraguan government has not yet fully weighed.

``They will have to decide how best to exploit this situation with regard to the United States,'' suggests one Western diplomat. ``It could be most embarrassing to Washington if they were to hand Hasenfus back as a prisoner of war implying official US participation in his activities.'' -Arms to contras said to be transferred through Salvador airport. Story, P. 13-

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On the other hand, responds a Sandinista official, such a course of action ``would provoke a very negative reaction amongst our people. After all, this man was bringing death to Nicaragua.''

``We are still studying methods of whether to try him or whatever,'' said a Foreign Ministry spokeswomen. ``This is an entirely new situation for us.''

Should the Sandinistas choose a trial, Hasenfus would normally be brought before a ``popular anti-Somocista tribunal'' [PPA], created in 1982 to deal with suspected contra rebels. But officials are also mentioning the possibility that he might be brought before a military court.

This could be, observers here suggest, because of a reluctance to give much publicity to the tribunal. The PPAs were set up under special laws that have generated considerable controversy among lawyers here and sparked concern among international human rights groups.

The tribunal comprises one professional judge, named by the president, and two lay judges, chosen by the ``Sandinistas Defense Committees'' [CDS] -- block committees known as ``the eyes and ears of the revolution.'' Under the law of order and public security that the PPAs are designed to uphold, contra prisoners are liable to between 5 and 30 years in jail.

But they rarely impose even the minimum penalty, he says, because most contras caught ``are politically backward and confused peasant farmers, and we know that the revolution has not reached the whole countryside.''

These mitigating circumstances, he adds, do not apply in Hasenfus's case.

Hasenfus would be the first American brought before a PPA, and he might have a long wait. The case of two Cuban exiles captured with the contras last June has yet to come before the tribunal, according to senior Justice Ministry official, Rene Cruz.

Under a year-old state of emergency, Mr. Cruz points out, there is no limit to the time a prisoner may be held before trial. In this case, though, Cruz does not expect the investigation to take very long since ``there is sufficient evidence the man was caught red handed.''

But Chief Prosecutor Omar Cortez says a political decision could take the case out of his hands.

This is what a number of diplomats are predicting. ``A trail would be an internal affair,'' says one. ``Returning him to the US, if they made it an action between governments, would cause more international interest.''

But since US officials insist that Hasenfus and his dead colleagues were acting in a purely private capacity, anything that might smack of an official deal seems unlikely, other observers argue. And Managua ``is not going to hand Hasenfus back as a private person who had a travel accident,'' the diplomat points out.

``If the government thinks that by a trial they can bring out a CIA link, then that is what they will do, suggests a European envoy. ``They have a terrific propaganda advantage with Hasenfus in their hands: even more could be made of it if he is tried.'' [On Thursday, Hasenfus said publicly that he had worked with CIA employees and had taken part in 10 flights carrying weapons to the contras.]

The judicial procedure itself, however, whether in a military or in a civilian court would not lend itself to easy publicity. The Nicaraguan tradition dating to the last century is for trials to be held only through written depositions, with no oral hearings.

Meanwhile, Hasfensus is held by the Nicaraguan Army, officials say, where military intelligence officials, rather than state security agents, are debriefing him. ``The Army captured him, the Army showed him,'' said one Western diplomat. ``They are not going to yield such a valuable prey to a competing agency,'' such as state security, which falls under the Interior Ministry's aegis.

When the Army would let US consular officials see Hasenfus was developing Thursday into an awkward diplomatic wrangle. His wife's arrival Thursday promised to add another touch of drama.

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