THE ROBBERY of a Wells Fargo depot in Hartford, Conn., in September 1983 was well planned and spectacular. The take was $7.6 million, and those accused of the crime were at large for almost two years. Seventeen were indicted for robbery and conspiracy in August 1985 -- three others were indicted later -- but the case has yet to come to trial. Even more startling is the fact -- rightly protested in a recent article in The Nation -- that two of the original defendants have been held in preventive detention the whole time. Without having been convicted of a single crime, they have already been in prison for 30 months.

To put it mildly: This is not supposed to happen. Under the provisions of the Bail Reform Act of 1984, an accused person may be held without bail if there is a substantial risk that he will flee or if he poses a danger to the community. While that law does not set a specific limit on the length of such pretrial confinement, another law, the Speedy Trial Act, expresses a preference that incarcerated defendants be brought to trial within 90 days of confinement. Indictments have been dismissed for failure to go to trial within time periods far shorter than 30 months. It's not as if the courts have not taken notice of this case. The question of bail has been in litigation almost continuously. Yet both the U.S. district court in Connecticut and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit -- which ordered the release of some of the defendants in the case -- have refused to free two men pending trial.

If ever there were candidates for pretrial detention, these two, Filiberto Ojeda Rios and Juan Segarra Palmer, are probably what Congress had in mind when the law was passed. The government has produced evidence that they are leaders of a paramilitary terrorist group known as Los Macheteros (the machete wielders), which is dedicated to securing independence for Puerto Rico. The group has claimed responsibility for numerous violent acts, including the Wells Fargo robbery, the destruction of $40 million worth of aircraft at a U.S. Air Force base in Puerto Rico and the bombing of a bus on a naval base that killed two sailors and wounded nine. They both have histories of flight to avoid prosecution, and neither has strong ties to the community.

But whether or not the initial decision to detain was reasonable, the length of continued detention is unconscionable. The prosecutors took nine months to translate wiretaps, took 10 months to translate seized documents and delayed 10 months in disclosing the existence of videotapes of the defendants. Fourteen months after detention began, the government had still not complied with some of the defense's discovery requests. Granted, this is a complicated conspiracy trial involving 20 defendants, acts at a number of locations and the added difficulty of two lanuages. Nevertheless, to incarcerate the accused for years without trial is shocking. The courts have put no pressure on the prosecutors to proceed, but decency and justice require that they do so without delay.