Suharto's claim to illness keeps corruption investigation at bay

Former dictator and his family come out in style for granddaughter's wedding
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The Independent Online

When Danty and Triono married the day before yesterday, there were no signs, or no obvious signs, that anything was wrong. The elaborate Javanese wedding rites had been going on for eight days, and the guests - almost 2,000 of them - began arriving early in the morning at the park on the edge of Jakarta where the final ceremony was held.

According to tradition, the bride and groom paid respects to their parents and threw petals at one another, before Danty signalled her obedience by washing her husband's feet. The female guests wore diaphanous blouses of lime green lace; the men wore sarongs, and head dresses, with kris - the mystical dagger cherished as Javanese heirlooms - pushed into their sashes.

The arrival of President Abdurrahman Wahid with his aides and bodyguards caused no more than a brief kerfuffle. But then the centre of attention was not really Indonesia's current President. Instead, all eyes were on an old man in a black felt hat, sitting in the front row on the bride's side.

When he stirred, people nudged one another and leant forward and whispered his name. We watched as he walked towards the bride and groom, who kissed his cheeks and hands and bowed before him. We waited for a stumble,a look of confusion, but there was none.

The old man - Danty's grandfather - is Suharto, for 32 years Indonesia's unchallenged dictator. These days he hardly ever makes public appearances but, when he does, the way he moves and talks are scrutinised intensely. In 1998, Suharto was forced from power by acampaign of student demonstrations. Mr Wahid himself has accused him of secretly stirring up violence in the Spice Islands and the separatist province of Aceh. Indonesia's Attorney General, Marzuki Darusman, suspects him of siphoning off billions of dollars from state-owned companies. The students still demonstrate, calling for his arrest and trial. But on Tuesday afternoon, flanked by two of his former vice-presidents, there he sat, the perfect grandfather in the bosom of his family.

This morning, Mr Darusman will sit in his office waiting for the former president to respond to a summons for questioning over corruption allegations. The summons is a formality, for he knows very well Suharto will not attend.

Like Augusto Pinochet, another retired dictator of the same vintage, Suharto's lawyers insist he is too poorly to face questioning. Hence the shifting in the seats, and the muttering among the guests when he moved: the future of justice in Indonesia - or the lack of it - depends on Suharto's good health.

It is nearly two years since Suharto stepped down, and in that time Indonesia has been transformed. After three decades of authoritarian control, the country has developed a robust and unruly media and an uncountable number of political parties.

Political prisoners have been released,the occupied territory of East Timor has been given its freedom and, since his election last year, President Wahid has set about purging the powerful armed forces of its reactionary officers.

But even amid all this change, the principal demand of those great demonstrations two years ago has not been met: Suharto, his family and his gang of cronies, remain not only unpunished but unprosecuted. Even at the height of his power, Suharto never practised the straightforward plunder of state coffers, in the style of the late Filipino president, Ferdinand Marcos. Instead Suharto is accused of enriching those around him through the granting of lucrative trading licences and monopolies.

A notable absentee from Tuesday's celebrations was Bob Hasan, a notorious Suharto crony and timber tycoon, who was arrested on suspicion of embezzling $2bn (£1.3bn) of government money from a forestry-related project. But Suharto's youngest son, Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala was there - accused, among other things, of cheating Indonesia's clove farmers of $257m through his clove monopoly.

The bride's mother is Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana (aka Tutut), who is accused of corruption in the management of Indonesia's lucrative toll roads. "We need to put a stop to this myth that Suharto and his associates are above the law," Mr Darusman says. "He's the prime symbol of the past system and this has affected the attitudes and behaviours of the other families. Now we are on the verge of a very crucial point." Cautiously, the children and cronies have been called in for questioning but, five months into his job, Mr Darusman has made no obvious progress in pinning down Suharto himself.

"Did you notice that he didn't really talk?" one guest said to me. "When he was sitting there as a witness, he wasn't properly paying attention. He put on his glasses, but he wasn't focusing."

According to a friend of the family, the former president is prone to vagueness after time in hospital for a stroke last year. The friend says: "You ask him if he wants a drink, for example, and he'll say something off the point like, 'Drinking water is very good for the health'. It can take hours to get a direct answer out of him." But from where I was sitting, no more than 15 yards away, he looked - for a man of 78 - in remarkably good health.

He kneeled at the table where the bride and groom took their vows. When he stood to give them his blessing, he rose unaided and walked slowly but unfalteringly towards them. He chatted from time to time with President Wahid who - nearly blind at the age of 60 - looked frail beside him.

Suharto's doctors claim he has a speech problem, slight paralysis of the left hand and impairment of his memory. He failed to obey the last summons for interrogation, so Mr Darusman sent round an independent medical team, which pronounced him to be quitefit enough to answer a few questions.

If Suharto fails to appear today, the investigators can, in theory, take him in themselves. But many Indonesians doubt that will ever happen. Fachry Ali, director of the Institute for the Study and Advancement of Business Ethics, says: "This is a state which always succumbs to cultural tendencies, above the upholding of the rule of law. The cultural problem is hard to put into English, but it is a subtle reluctance of officials to do something bluntly, especially against many corrupters who are older, more senior. It is still the status quo now, doing nothing, going nowhere."

For 32 years, even to those who feared and hated him, Suharto was known as bapak - "honoured father". For the time being he is safe, sitting quietly and walking slowly, but still there in the front row.