Jakarta erupts as Suharto escapes fraud trial

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The Independent Online

Efforts by pro-democracy reformers in Indonesia to prosecute the former dictator Suharto for corruption collapsed yesterday when a court in the capital, Jakarta, ruled he was too ill to stand trial.

Efforts by pro-democracy reformers in Indonesia to prosecute the former dictator Suharto for corruption collapsed yesterday when a court in the capital, Jakarta, ruled he was too ill to stand trial.

The decision, which also lifted the former president's house arrest and restrictions on his travel, provoked street violence and fuelled fears that tension created by a series of bomb attacks linked to the trial would grow.

Suharto was accused of stealing almost $600m (about £400m), by embezzling government funds to bankroll businesses controlled by his cronies and his children, before his downfall two years ago.

But a panel of 23 court-appointed doctors advised the court that the 79-year-old, who has suffered three strokes since he was forced out of power, has the mental age of a child and is unfit to be tried. The spokesman for the medical team said the former dictator had "trouble expressing himself" and needed to use sign language because he could not understand complex ideas.

Lalu Mariyun, the chief judge, said: "The court has decided that the criminal case of Suharto cannot be accepted. Therefore the case is closed." One of Suharto's supporters in the heavily guarded courtroom cried out: "God is great! Long live Suharto!"

Indonesia's Attorney General, Marzuki Darusman, said afterwards he was disappointed and that the prosecutors would appeal. The trial had been seen as a test of the new government's pledge to bring to justice those responsible for human rights abuses, embezzlement and corruption, during Suharto's 32-year rule. The decision provoked widespread anger. Students marched towards Suharto's opulent residence in the city centre, but were halted by troops who fired warning shots over their heads.At least 10 students were beaten by police near the court for hurling Molotov cocktails. Riot police later fired tear gas at protesters who were clashing with Suharto loyalists near the former autocrat's home. At least one man was killed in mob violence, the police said.

The violence that has surrounded previous sittings of the Suharto trial is widely believed to have been orchestrated by supporters of his family, who are intent on thwarting investigations into how the Suhartos allegedly amassed millions of dollars during three decades. A car bomb attack outside the Jakarta stock exchange two weeks ago killed at least 15 people, and Suharto loyalists have claimed responsibility for a bomb at the premises of a human rights organisation in Jakarta on Wednesday night.

The violence had prompted some in government circles to suggest that the Suharto case be dropped because of fears the trial could set off instability.

President Wahid has offered the former dictator a pardon if he returns about $25m to the state, but has made no such undertaking to other members of the family. Tommy Suharto, the playboy youngest son of the former dictator, was sentenced on Wednesday to 18 months in prison for corruption. But since an order for his arrest was never acted upon, he is likely to remain free at least until the end of the appeals process.

Tommy is the most notorious of Suharto's six children, as a racing car enthusiast who is known for his questionable business deals, some of which have been condemned by international financial institutions. He set up a powerful business network under the Humpuss Group of companies which, since the 1990s, has had a monopoly on the huge domestic trade in cloves.

Always insensitive to the plight of the majority of the population, he arrived at a news conference in a Rolls- Royce at the height of Indonesia's economic crisis in 1998, where he claimed his father's dictatorship had been good for the country. At the time, food riots were breaking out and the rupiah was collapsing. His conviction was the first of any member of the family for wrongdoing during the former dictator's 32-year rule.

Suharto seized power by forcing out Indonesia's founding President, Sukarno, in 1965. Suharto claimed his troops had crushed a communist uprising, in which six generals were murdered. They also rounded up about 300,000 political prisoners for exile on remote islands, where many remained until Suharto was forced from power by protests.

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