Enrique Sotelo for the defense. Nicaraguan lawyer for Hasenfus is experienced in law and politics

``There's a saying that people from Boaco are stupid,'' Dr. Enrique Sotelo Borgen says wilily of his hometown. ``And friends of mine have told me that I shouldn't have taken this case on.'' Sitting behind piles of paper in his dim, cramped office, tapping insistently on an antiquated telephone as he tries to get a connection, Dr. Sotelo looks an unlikely figure to be leading the defense in Nicaragua's trial of the year -- the State vs. Eugene Hasenfus.

The attorney has plenty of experience in the Popular Anti-Somocista Tribunals (TPA's) that are hearing the captured American flyer's case, however. As an opposition member of the National Assembly, he seems as ready to play politics with the trial as the Sandinista government.

In a Monitor interview, Sotelo says he does not know why he was called on to take the case. ``But my conscience would have stung me if I had turned it down without good reason,'' he explains.

Colleagues say he was picked from a list of lawyers, that the United States Embassy here provided to Hasenfus's wife, after other attorneys on the list had turned the request down.

``He has close contacts with the US Embassy,'' says Edwin Yllescas, a conservative member of the National Assembly.

Sotelo, who has a wife and five children, comes from a political family. His father was elected to the Parliament three times as a conservative and led a campaign to take Nicaragua's Customs administration out of US hands in 1951.

Sotelo's own political background is a little murky, involving trouble with both his own Democratic Conservative Party (PCD) and the state Security Police.

Elected to the National Assembly for the PCD, the strongest opposition group, he was expelled from the party six months later.

During the electoral campaign, Sotelo first favored signing a pact with the Sandinistas. He later argued that the party should withdraw from the elections altogether, says Mr. Yllescas, a PCD deputy.

The lawyer's political activities earned him two weeks of detention in a state security prison in 1984, for allegedly planning an exodus from the country of all opposition political leaders. He was released without being charged.

Sotelo is now leader of a two-man conservative faction in the assembly, but he has not shone in debates.

``He scarcely ever comes, and when he does he keeps quiet,'' says fellow lawyer Humberto Solis Barker, a deputy for the Sandinista Front.

``But he is a good lawyer,'' adds Mr. Solis Barker, who grew up and went to law school with Sotelo.

``He knows his law, he is one of the most experienced in the TPA's, and I think this American has one of the best defenders he could hope for in a TPA trial.''

During his 28 years in the courts, Sotelo says, he has specialized in political cases and once defended Sandinistas tried by the Somoza dictator regime.

``I'd only just got my law degree when I defended some of the first people to be accused of terrorism in Nicaragua,'' he says.

``Some of them still greet me on the street when I run into them,'' Sotelo adds.

Today, however, Sotelo is outspoken in his criticism of the ruling Sandinista government. Recalling his father's nationalist battle, he rues that ``now it's the Cubans and the Soviets who are rulers of this country.''

Although he insists that he will fight Hasenfus's case on purely juridical grounds, Sotelo is not unwilling to use his new-found international prominence for political ends. And he has been open to the point of indiscretion with reporters beseiging him for information.

A diffident and nervous man behind his tinted thick spectacles, however, Sotelo has frustrated journalists by frequently contradicting himself. He has also displayed a tendency to launch into denunciations of problems such as petrol rationing in the middle of interviews about the Hasenfus case.

While Sotelo's abilities as a lawyer are not in doubt, his colleagues say, the Hasenfus trial is shaping up as an eminently political affair.

``This is not just the trial of Hasenfus, it is the trial of the United States administration,'' said Justice Minister Rodrigo Reyes Portocarerro, presenting the prosecution's opening statement on Monday.

``I'm not taking on the defense of the US government. That's not what I was hired for,'' Sotelo responded later.

But given the ramifications of the Hasenfus case, that approach may not be sufficient, observers suggest. Dr. Sotelo's problem as he enters the international limelight, says Clemente Guido, PCD leader, is that ``he doesn't have enough political weight to carry this responsibility.''

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