Far away from the press, from densely populated black towns like Soweto and from lawyers' offices, the Pan African Congress trial is being held in the tiny rural community of Bethal surrounded by cornstalks and sunflowers.

The government says the town, two-hour drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria, was chosen because there is a prison that could accommodate all the defendants and state witnesses.

The defense, however, regards the selection of the site as an attempt to get the trail out of the public eye and to make life difficult for them.

Hotels are not too swanky in Bethal. The presiding, judge, D.J. Curlewis, is put up in a railway carriage surrounded by a high wire fence and a 24-hour police guard.

Some observers say the Bethal trial is a high-water mark in the use of discretionary judicial powers to make difficult for the defense.

Curlewis granted the prosecution's request that the proceedings he held privately while the state witnesses are testifying, thus excluding even relatives and family of the accused from the courtroom.

The judge from a U.S. Embassy official, Richard Baltimore, to observe the trial for a day. Curlewis said that his request to visit for a day showed that he was not interested in the facts of the case, but only in whether Curlewis was behaving in a way that pleased the world.

The defense team of the order in which state witnesses will be represented, a courtesy normally extended by the prosecution. Most witnesses come straight from several months in solitary confinement to testify.

As a rule, state witnesses give testimony reluctantly, and there are usually some who refuse to do it once they get on the stand, lawyers say. Not so in Bethal. Legal observers are puzzled by the willingness of the witnesses to testify and even to give unsolicited damaging information about their former colleagues.

They suspect this is happening because the trial is far away from their hometowns, because family and relatives of the accused are not in the gallery and because, as is normal in all political trials, the policemen who elicited their statements, are in court listening to them. In addition, when they leave the stand, they return to police custody.

This willingness to talk has lowered the morale of the defendants. "At the beginning of the trial, they didn't believe their erstwhile friends would give evidence against them," said one person close to the proceedings.

But the oldest defendant, Zephania Mothopeng, was philosophical. "You have to take what they're saying with a pinch of salt, he said. "They have been in detention."