Indonesia braced for prospect of Suharto in the dock

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The Independent Online

The former Indonesian dictator, Suharto, was yesterday ordered to appear in court on charges of corruption in what promises to be a climactic moment in his country's violent transition to democracy.

The former Indonesian dictator, Suharto, was yesterday ordered to appear in court on charges of corruption in what promises to be a climactic moment in his country's violent transition to democracy.

A courtroom seating 400 people will be set up in the capital, Jakarta, and prosecutors will summon 130 witnesses in the case, which is due to open next Thursday morning. Suharto's lawyers insist he is too ill to stand trial after a number of minor strokes, but a senior Indonesian judge said yesterday he must attend in person.

"Suharto must face the trial," said Lalu Mariyun, the chief judge of the South Jakarta court. "I have said that I will order the prosecutors to make him come to the trial." But his lawyers said yesterday that he would come only if he was healthy enough, raising the prospect of a drawn-out struggle to bring him to court.

"If he is fit, legally he must attend the trial," said Muhammad Assegaf, one of Mr Suharto's legal team. "If, according to doctors, he is not, he has the right not to go. We have to see how he is on that day. It's hard to predict, but you can hardly hear his voice now."

The trial is expected to be broadcast live on national television. If it goes ahead, the sight of Suharto answering charges from the dock of a criminal court will be profoundly symbolic in the country he ruled unchallenged after a coup in 1965.

He resigned as president in May 1998 after violent riots and widespread demonstrations against the nepotism, corruption and human rights violations that had become so widespread under his regime.

The charges to be brought next week concern one of several "charitable foundations" founded by Suharto, through which he allegedly channelled $571m (£381m) of state funds to enrich his family. Marzuki Darusman, the attorney general, said the charity solicited "donations" from the Indonesian government, which were then transferred to Indoverbank, an Amsterdam bank owned by the Indonesian central bank.

From the Netherlands, the money is said to have been moved into off-shore tax shelters, and then found its way back into "joint ventures" involving the Suharto family.

The original investigation of Suharto, under the presidency of his successor, B J Habibie, found no grounds for prosecution. But under the country's first democratic president, Abdurrahman Wahid, the investigation has gathered momentum. If convicted, the 79-year-old former dictator could be sentenced to life in prison, although President Wahid has said that he will pardon him.

Yesterday, Mr Darusman held on to his job in a cabinet reshuffle that changed the financial and economic portfolios. He has been criticised for ignoring the human-rights abuses seen by many as Suharto's greatest crimes - the extra-judicial killings in the rebellious regions of East Timor and Aceh and the half a million people said to have been lynched in an anti-communist witch-hunt in 1965 and 1966.

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