Court casts cold eye on Suharto's corruption

As Indonesia's former dictator prepares to face his accusers, others with blood on their hands remain untouched by justice
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As Indonesia went to sleep last night, a few hours before the opening of its greatest criminal trial, everything - or almost everything - was in place.

As Indonesia went to sleep last night, a few hours before the opening of its greatest criminal trial, everything - or almost everything - was in place.

In an auditorium in south Jakarta a special courtroom has been created, with hundreds of seats for press and spectators. Two helipads are built for quick exits in case of trouble. The panel of four judges is ready, the prosecutors have assembled their evidence, and TV cameras are in place for live national broadcast. And a total of 1,250 police, including a bomb-disposal squad, will be on duty to enforce the ban on demonstrations.

But, as the hour of the trial, at 10 o'clock this morning, draws closer, one question is unanswered - will there be adefendant?

Many Indonesians are as cynical as Chileans were in the case of General Augusto Pinochet, about the Suharto lawyers' claim that the 79-year-old former president's memory is going, as is his power of speech, after a series of minor strokes. There are good grounds for that cynicism. Few former strongmen have faced justice for their crimes. The ones still alive are elderly, and many are enjoying their last days - and loot - in undisturbed comfort, in their own countries.

Last night, no one appeared to know whether Mr Suharto, retired general and for 32 years dictator of Indonesia, would answer the summons to appear in court on charges of corruption.

Denny Kailimang, a member of Mr Suharto's team of lawyers, said: "He is sick and his doctors have already told us he cannot stand trial. On Thursday, about 7am, Mr Suharto's doctors will determine whether their patient can come."

If Mr Suharto does appear in the dock, to face charges of misappropriating $571m (£388m) of state funds, it will be a moment of profound symbolism, on a par with his resignation in May 1998 and the country's first democratic elections in June last year. If not, nobody knows what will happen.

Amien Rais, speaker of Indonesia's national assembly, said: "We know Suharto's health is deteriorating. I am afraid this trial is only cosmetic. I am also afraid the public will be disappointed if Suharto does not show up." Even before the charges are read out, a tense day is in the offing.

Mr Suharto's corruption, and that of his children and cronies, is legendary, but never has it been examined in such detail as in the case the prosecution hopes to bring today.

The case centres on one of several "charitable foundations" created by Mr Suharto and his wife, through which he is said to have channelled the $571m for the enrichment of his family.

Marzuki Darusman, the Attorney General, says the charity solicited "donations" from the Indonesian government, which were transferred to Indoverbank, in Amsterdam, which is owned by the Indonesian central bank. From the Netherlands, the money is said to have been moved into off-shore tax shelters, then funnelled into "joint ventures" involving members of the Suharto family.

"There are no grey areas,'' Mr Marzuki said. "The biggest hurdle to Mr Suharto's appearance is the state of his health. On the points of law, we are not overly worried.'' But there are several reasons to doubt whether the case will bring justice, and the first is Mr Suharto's health.

Doctors commissioned by the Attorney General's office have, by and large, judged him well enough for interrogation. On the other hand, he is elderly, with that history of hearttrouble.

Anton Tabah, his secretary, said: "When he was told yesterday about tomorrow's trial, his blood pressure rose from 130 to 160. So the doctors are 90 per cent certain Mr Suharto will not be able to be present."

The second cause for scepticism is that Mr Suharto has been assured, on the highest authority, that he will face no penalty. Repeatedly, President Wahid has said he will pardon his predecessor. He tried and failed to do a pre-trial deal to let the Suhartos off the hook in return for their ill-gotten gains.

But Mr Wahid is unpredict-able, with a record of denying categorically what he told TV cameras a few hours earlier when, as is often the case, he has been rash or impolitic.

And, for all the many horrendous crimes perpetrated by the Suharto regime, this is still a political trial.

But the biggest reason for dissatisfaction is with the charges. By one estimate, the Suhartos plundered $16bn. Even if this is wildly exaggerated, the sums outlined in today's prosecution are a drop in the ocean.

In any case, the dictator's plundering from the state was, by and large, a victimless crime, when compared to the massacres of 1965-66, when 500,000 alleged "communists" were massacred with the government's collusion, or with the 23-year occupation of East Timor where a further 200,000 are believed to have died.

Carmel Budardjo, director of the human rights group Tapol, says: "The corruption charges against Suharto do not measure up to the need to indict and punish him for presiding over a systematic campaign of killings and repression, which was the hallmark of the Suharto era."

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