Suharto's playboy son goes to ground

Indonesia's most wanted man is still on the run. Staggering police incompetence, or is there a conspiracy?
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The Independent Online

As you go about your business keep an eye out for a stranger. He is 38, plump-faced, moustachioed and frequently has an air of infuriating smugness. He likes flash cars, gambling and night clubs.

As you go about your business keep an eye out for a stranger. He is 38, plump-faced, moustachioed and frequently has an air of infuriating smugness. He likes flash cars, gambling and night clubs.

If you see him call Interpol. You may well be looking at Tommy Suharto, playboy, son of a dictator, and the most wanted man in Indonesia. By now he could be anywhere.

For the past week, Indonesians have been absorbed by the Tommy Suharto drama, a mixture of farce, thriller and tragedy. A week ago, the country was exulting. At long last, the family of the deposed dictator, Suharto, was being forced to pay for its crimes. Yesterday, people were shaking their heads. After the long struggle to bring him to justice, he had slipped through the net at the last minute.

Hutomo Mandala Putra, universally known as Tommy, was convicted last month of corruption, cheating the government out of $11m. His father, President Suharto, is believed to have misdirected millions, perhaps billions, of dollars of state money to his family's benefit in his 32 years in power.

Since he was forced out of office in 1998, political activists and prosecutors have struggled to follow the complicated paper trail linking Mr Suharto and his children, bogus charitable foundations and foreign banks where the loot is stored.

A judge ruled that the 78-year-old was too poorly to stand trial. With Tommy, that was easier. And the new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, refused his plea for a pardon.

In an inspiring sign of Indonesia's transition from dictatorship to democracy, Tommy was to serve 18 months in Cipinang Penitentiary. But one factor had been ignored - the police.

In the two weeks between his conviction and rejection of his appeal, no attempt was made to monitor Suharto Junior. Nine days ago his arrest warrant was issued. By the time he was declared a fugitive, last Tuesday, he had not been seen for three days.

Yesterday, police said they would question his lawyers, who provided the drama with its element of comedy.

Throughout, they have insisted they have no idea where he was, while relaying messages from him. Tommy, they said, would consent to prison only if he could have a private cell, protected by his own bodyguards. He was said to have had phone calls threatening him with death and sodomy, although how the menacing callers were able to reach him when the Jakarta police could not is unexplained.

Enquiries were made in Bali, Lombok and Borneo. But in a country as wide as Europe, with 15,000 islands, there is a long way to go. On Friday, police asked for Tommy to be put on the Interpol wanted list. "But I doubt he's abroad," said a police spokesman, Saleh Saaf, with touching if misplaced faith. "Because he's banned from leaving the country."

Indonesians delight in weaving elaborate conspiracy theories about the continuing influence of the Suhartos, who live, in silent seclusion, behind the walls of their villa complex in central Jakarta. Hard evidence is hard to find, but perhaps the Tommy affair provides it at last. For either this is a conspiracy, or police incompetence so staggering it is difficult to believe.

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