Judge orders Suharto to attend start of corruption trial

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The Independent Online

Former President Suharto's corruption trial will start on Aug. 31 and the ex-dictator has been ordered to attend despite claims that he is brain damaged, the judge in charge of the case said Wednesday.

Former President Suharto's corruption trial will start on Aug. 31 and the ex-dictator has been ordered to attend despite claims that he is brain damaged, the judge in charge of the case said Wednesday.

South Jakarta District Court Chief Judge Lalu Mariyun said the open hearing would be held in an auditorium inside an agricultural ministry building because of space and security problems at his courthouse.

Indonesia's Attorney General Marzuki Darusman also demanded that Suharto show up and estimated that the heavily guarded trial could take six months to complete.

Suharto's legal team responded to the news of a trial date by expressing doubt that their 79-year-old client would be mentally and physically fit enough to attend.

Suharto's prosecution is regarded as a crucial test of the resolve of Indonesia's 10-month-old reform-minded government to clean up endemic corruption in the world's fourth-most populous nation.

Seats will be reserved for 200 journalists and 200 spectators at the historic hearing, the judge said.

The spectacle of Suharto on trial is also likely to attract crowds of pro-democracy student protesters who helped oust the former despot from power in 1998 and who have been demanding his prosecution ever since.

"We have determined that the trial will start on Thursday, Aug. 31, at 10 a.m. and we have ordered the prosecutor to bring the defendant to court," Mariyun told a news conference.

"God willing, we hope he will show up. If not, we will see what is the reason."

The former dictator has been charged with siphoning off at least dlrs 570 million in state funds through a network of charities under his control.

Much of the money was allegedly used to bankroll massive business empires owned by his children and cronies.

Suharto, who like many Indonesians uses one name, has denied any wrongdoing.

If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison, although President Abdurrahman Wahid has offered to pardon him in exchange for the return of any ill-gotten gains.

The old autocrat's lawyers claim their client is too ill to go before the courts, saying his memory and ability to comprehend questions have been diminished by a series of strokes.

They have suggested postponing the trial until Suharto's health improves.

"He is suffering from permanent brain damage. We will have to wait and see if he is fit enough or not," said Syamsul Hadi, a member of Suharto's defense team.

Darusman, a human rights activist during Suharto's reign, and now Indonesia's top legal officer, said medical tests show that he is fit to go to court.

"We hope that this trial will be over within three to six months," Darusman said.

"I hope the hearing will go smoothly. As a defendant, Suharto must attend."

Darusman and other officials involved in the investigation against Suharto have been under police protection for months.

"Police will guard the hearing and if necessary we can call on Indonesia's military," South Jakarta Police chief Col. Edward Aritonang said.

Jakarta has been rocked by several explosions and bomb threats in recent weeks. Several anti-Suharto protests have resulted in clashes with security forces.

Indonesia does not have a jury system. Suharto's case will be heard by a five-judge panel led by Mariyun.

If the trial proceeds on schedule, prosecutors will open the hearing by reading formal charges and details of the case, a process that may take many days.

Legal analysts have suggested the trial could take many months even if Suharto's health problems do not trigger delays.

Suharto had been under house arrest since May. His detention status was changed recently to allow him to travel around, but not outside of, Jakarta.

Critics of Darusman say that the charges against Suharto are too limited and should include violations of human rights.

"We are not satisfied. The court is only focusing on Suharto's charities, while Suharto's crimes go deeper than that," said Faisal Saimima, a spokesman for Forkot, a student activist group.