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OCTOBER 9, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 14


APTN/AP.
Police violently teargas a protester.

Off the Hook?
Fresh violence erupts in Indonesia as corruption charges against Suharto are dropped, raising doubts as to whether justice will ever be served
By ANTHONY SPAETH

For more than three decades, Indonesia's Suharto seemed to merit the epithet strongman. At age 79, confined to his home and supposedly addled by three strokes, the former general appears weaker than ever. But as the latest turn of events proves, he still has clout, luck and the ability to spark public passions.

A team of independent doctors testified at a court hearing last week that the man who had ruled Indonesia with an iron hand for 32 years—before being ousted by his people—could no longer perform simple arithmetic. Strokes, kidney problems, diabetes, arteriosclerosis and hypertension have supposedly left Suharto physically and mentally incapable of standing trial on corruption charges. "This condition is of a permanent nature," said lead physician Dr. Jakaria. That led a panel of judges to drop charges that Suharto had diverted $570 million from seven charities to family and friends, and to lift a travel ban that had been imposed on the former President. What the decision raised instead was the prospect that Suharto will never be held accountable for alleged corruption and human rights abuses during his reign.

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That, predictably, set off rioting in Jakarta, brutally suppressed by police. Thousands of students gathered in front of the court and near Suharto's home to protest the decision, carrying banners that read "Hanging Suharto Would Be Faster" and clashing with Suharto supporters bused in from as far away as West Java. Video footage showed one policeman shooting a cowed demonstrator in the face point-blank with a tear-gas rifle and then beating him severely. Two protesters ended up in critical condition and dozens of others were injured. As Jakarta prepared to announce a fuel hike, more demonstrations were expected this week. "The students will keep protesting and try Suharto in their own way," says Budiman Sudjatmiko, leader of the Democratic People's Party, a left-wing group banned under Suharto's New Order.

It isn't clear if the ailing defendant is out of the woods yet. While on a trip to South America, President Abdurrahman Wahid late last week called for new legal proceedings to be started against Suharto, this time with "clean" judges. Adi Andojo, a former Supreme Court judge and head of the government's Anti-Corruption Team charges that "the judge in this case has created his own regulation that deviates from the existing laws. Being sick is not a strong enough reason for the case to be stopped." Prosecutors, meanwhile, have vowed to appeal the ruling to a higher court.

For Wahid's reformist government, however, things keep getting worse. Two weeks ago, the President ordered that Suharto's flamboyant youngest son, Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, be arrested for complicity in a bomb blast at the Jakarta Stock Exchange on Sept. 13 that killed 15 people. (The bomb went off a day before Suharto's previously scheduled court appearance.) Tommy voluntarily turned up at Jakarta police headquarters but was quickly released for lack of evidence. Wahid responded by firing his police chief—a move that did little to further his case for erasing the autocratic ways of the past.

Last week, just two days before his father won his court battle, Tommy was sentenced to 18 months in jail on a separate charge: causing the state $11 million in losses in a fraudulent 1995 land deal. He can ask for a review of the ruling, and as of late last week he had not turned himself in to authorities. Still, officials at Jakarta's maximum security Cipinang prison have prepared a cell for him. "This is a heavy sentence for a Suharto family member," says Adi Andojo. "It doesn't seem too long, but for a family that once had all the power, it is a major blow."

For many Indonesians, though, punishing the son is not enough. The great fear is that without investigating Suharto—who by Time's estimates amassed, along with his children, a fortune of $15 billion while in power—the true extent of wrongdoing by his offspring and cronies will never be known. In places like restless Aceh, where the repression that began under Suharto continues today—20 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the province since June—citizens worry that no one will be brought to book for past abuses committed in the name of the government. And perhaps most disturbingly, the ruling in Suharto's favor leaves many with the impression that the old man's followers still pull extremely powerful strings in Indonesia. "The fact that the Attorney General is having trouble indicates that much of the old system is still in place," says Rahman Tolleng, a longtime friend of Wahid and a member of the Democracy Forum, a loose network of pro-democracy activists set up in the early 1990s.

That, in turn, is not good news for those struggling to hold this fractious democracy together. "We cannot expect our legal system to deliver justice because there has been no change in the mechanism or the people," says Asmara Nababan, secretary-general of the National Commission on Human Rights. Citizens from aggrieved provinces might be willing to accept Jakarta's authority in return for an honest accounting of the past. But that increasingly seems like a distant dream.

Reported by Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta

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