An Annandale couple's nearly 11-month struggle to free their 23-year-old son from a jail in Barcelona got a boost yesterday when an Alexandria man admitted in federal court that he and others had hidden cocaine in the son's suitcase without his knowledge.

Federal prosecutors in Alexandria said the sworn statements by George E. Barahona, 30, in which he said Conan D. Owen was tricked into being a drug courier, will be taken by Attorney General Edwin Meese III to Spain next week in an effort to win Owen's release.

"Meese is optimistic that Barahona's testimony will be enough to convince Spanish authorities that Owen is innocent," U.S. Attorney Henry E. Hudson said at a news conference yesterday.

Hudson said he is convinced that Owen was framed. Owen was charged in Spain with drug smuggling and importing cocaine after airport officials there found almost four pounds of cocaine in a suitcase he was carrying for someone else.

Barahona's admissions came during a hearing at which he pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge and agreed to cooperate with authorities here and in Spain. In exchange, he received a two-year suspended sentence, and prosecutors said they promised they would not extradite him to Spain, where he is wanted on drug charges.

Spanish Embassy spokesman Arturo Perez, asked if Barahona's statements would be sufficient to free Owen, responded: "We will have to see what the judge has to say. Mr. Meese is a very high-ranking Cabinet member . . . . Since we are all human, it will have some value . . . . I'm sure justice will prevail."

Meese is traveling to Spain to sign a legal treaty with that country.

"I want my son back," Ernest Owen, a 55-year-old insurance claims adjuster, told a reporter yesterday. The elder Owen said he and his wife, Raquel, have spent countless hours and more than $20,000 trying to free their son, whom they last saw a few weeks ago in the Barcelona prison where he has been held since his arrest March 13.

Conan Owen is a 1986 honors graduate of Syracuse University, an ROTC scholarship recipient and a prize-winning photographer who was set to enter Army intelligence training last May, according to his father.

Said to have been in love with photography since age 14, Owen was a photographic intern in the office of Vice President Bush in the summer of 1983.

According to papers filed yesterday by prosecutors, Barahona and others planning to import large amounts of cocaine into Spain decided that "a United States citizen would be used as an unwitting courier to carry cocaine from South America."

Last March, Barahona, who met Owen through a cousin of Owen's, offered him a $1,000 contract to take photos in Chile and Brazil for a travel agency in Barcelona, according to the papers.

Barahona gave Owen plane tickets and a suitcase full of travel brochures that Owen was to deliver to a man named Julio Prieto Garcia in Barcelona, the papers stated.

During Owen's stay in Santiago, Chile, an alleged member of the drug ring secretly entered his hotel room and replaced the suitcase of brochures with a seemingly identical one that contained a false bottom and the cocaine, worth about $200,000, the papers stated.

In an interview broadcast on WRC-TV (Channel 4) last night, Owen said that when Spanish customs officials started "squeezing" the outside of the suitcase, and then found packets in the false bottom, "I knew . . . then this wasn't what I'd bargained for."

Owen told the officials he was carrying the suitcase for Prieto Garcia, who did not show up as arranged at the airport, according to the court papers.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Spain interviewed Owen and arranged for him to take a lie detector test in April. The test showed he was telling the truth, according to his father.

Last July, DEA Administrator John C. Lawn wrote Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) that the polygraph results and DEA interviews with Owen "lend credible support to {his} claim that he was an unwitting participant in this offense."

DEA officials tried without success to have Spanish authorities come here to interview Barahona after he began cooperating with prosecutors last October, Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Williams said yesterday.

Barahona, who pleaded guilty to a one-count criminal information of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute, faced as much as 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Hudson said the two-year suspended sentence "was a small price to pay to free Conan Owen. I feel good about it." Hudson also said that, "but for Barahona's cooperation, there would be no way to prove {Owen's} innocence."

The charges Owen faces carry a 10-year sentence and fines of about $240,000 upon conviction, embassy spokesman Perez said. He said he did not know whether Spain would seek Barahona's extradition.

Williams said Barahona "had a genuine feeling of remorse" about Owen's detention. Barahona, a native of Ecuador and a naturalized U.S. citizen, declined to comment yesterday.

"It's been an emotional roller-coaster," Ernest Owen said of the efforts to free his son. "There are these incredible highs, when you think he'll get out, like after he passed the lie detector test.

"And then these real guilt trips because you're not spending every minute of every hour to help him get free."

As for Conan Owen, "It's been hell," he told WRC. "Each day I'm here, it's another day I've lost."