The heavy-set, elderly man, a former high official in the overthrown government of assassinated President William Tolbert, was escorted, puffing and wheezing, into a makeshift military courtroom this morning.

He nervously rubbed his gray stubble of beard and then his watery, bloodshot eyes. Little more than an hour later, the hearing was declared over and Frank J. Stewart, the Tolbert government's budget director and husband of Tolbert's niece, Charlotte, was ordered back to a stockade to await sentencing.

Stewart, clearly frightened, stood and pleaded, with upturned palms.

"Just remember," he said, "we are innocent. We tried our best as a family, Charlotte and my children, and everything we have we worked for."

So far, 13 former top associates of Tolbert have been tried before a five-man military tribunal on charges of high treason, corruption and suppression of civil and human rights.

Their sentences, which could be death by firing squad, have not been announced. They are being reviewed by the 17-member People's Redemption Council, headed by the new military ruler of Liberia, Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, who led the bloody April 12 coup, the first in this country's 133-year history.

In all, 92 officials of the government and the ruling True Whig Party under Tolbert were arrested in the coup. The trials, halted on Sunday, resumed today with Stewart as the 13th defendant.

Unlike tribunals that follow most coups and violent overthrows, the hearings here have been opened to local and foreign press.

All of the officials tried so far, including Stewart, said they were not guilty. Some blamed Tolbert personally for Liberia's ills and others claimed they were merely functionaries with no power.

The trails are held in the second-floor conference hall of a drab gray building just inside the main gate of the Barclay military training center.

The five grim-faced officers of the tribunal, who range in rank from captain to colonel, sit on a raised platform overlooking the seated defendant, who is not allowed a lawyer.

The windows of the room are kept open and the outside noise -- crowds, military police blowing whistles, police sirens -- repeatedly interrupts the trials. Ceiling fans manage only to circulate the stifling heat.

Stewart's trial began at 10:30 with a biblical verse and a prayer. Then Col. Frank P. Senkpeni, the tribunal chairman, read the charges of corruption and high treason and told Stewart he could make an opening statement.

"Please make it short," Senkpeni added.

Stewart, in a trembling and at times barely audible voice, said, "I plead innocent." He added that in his 28 years in government service, "There was no money ever involved passing through my hands."

Grilled about the property he owns -- 28 city lots, five houses and a rubber farm -- Stewart rambled through a defense. It often changed in midsentence as he sought to minimize his assets, was interrupted by noise from the street, had to stop because the court stenographer, using a typewriter, did not understand what he said, or was cut off by questioning from the tribunal.

Asked about his membership in the powerful True Whig Party, Stewart said he attended only one or two meetings during a lifelong membership.

"If I said to you that democratic principles had been carried out, I'd be lying," Stewart told the court. "But I was never at a policy-making position."

"That does not exempt you," retorted Maj. Samuel B. Taylor, one of the judges. "Whether you were a policy-maker or whether you were just a budget director, you took a party oath and you signed it."

Asked at the end of Stewart's hearing whether any of the former Tolbert officials will be allowed to have lawyers, Senkpeni said, "This is a tribunal. Defense counsel is not necessary. They are free to defend themselves."

While they await announcement of the sentences, Liberians gathered along the city's main commercial avenue during the lunch hour today to speculate about which former officials might be killed.

The coup here strongly resembled a junior officer coup by the "have-nots" in Ghana last June. Eight high-ranking officers, including three former heads of state, were executed after that coup.

The coup here, largely by indigenous Liberians, was directed at the ruling oligarchy made up of descendants of American slaves who founded the state and a few indigenous people associated with the ruling class. Through the True Whig Party, this group had governed Liberia for much of its history, suppressing dissent.

Tolbert was slain during the coup, but the new authorities are still searching for his son, A. Benedict Tolbert.

The government newspaper, New Liberian, in an apparently authoritative account of Tolbert's death, ran a picture of former corporal Harrison Penue, now a colonel and member of the ruling council, imitating Tolbert holding up his hands in surrender when the coup forces burst into his apartment in the executive mansion.

Tolbert pleaded, "I beg you, my son," before he was shot several times, Penue said. According to several sources, Tolbert was disemboweled "because he took to long to die."

The slain president was buried, along with 27 others killed during the coup, in a downtown mass grave in Monrovia, the capital.

Besides Tolbert's son, security forces are also looking for Maj. William Jerbo, who reportedly received extensive counterinsurgency training in the United States and allegedly was planning a coup himself. Jerbo is wanted for attacking soldiers of the new military regime last week.

The New Liberian today also criticized former vice president Bennie Warner for allegedly sanctioning a decision to execute political prisoners before he left Liberia with his family for a visit in the United States a week before the coup.

Reports of plans to execute jailed members and sympathizers of the banned Progressive People's Party triggered the coup, according to several government sources who had been told they were on the list.