Judge's 'toothache' thwarts opposition court challenge

Move to highlight government manipulation fails, writes Richard Lloyd Parry in Jakarta
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The Independent Online
It was never going to be more than an outside chance, but no one expected it would end in such an anti-climax. Yesterday, a legal challenge to the political dispute which provoked riots in Jakarta last weekend was frustrated after one of the judges went down with an alleged toothache.

The Jakarta district court was scheduled to hear a case brought by the opposition politician, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who claims that she was illegally deposed as elected chair of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) at a government sponsored congress in June. Ms Megawati's supporters occupied the PDI headquarters in central Jakarta and after police evicted them in a violent raid last Saturday there were riots which left at least four dead and hundreds arrested or injured.

Yesterday, lawyers acting for Ms Megawati demanded her restoration as party leader, and claimed damages from the Interior Minister, Yogie Memet, the commander of the armed forces, General Feisal Tanjung, the national police chief, and Suryadi, the PDI politician who replaced her. But the hearing was adjourned for three weeks after the chairman of the three- judge panel submitted a sick note from his dentist.

A crowd of about 300 Megawati supporters jeered as the announcement was relayed through loudspeakers to the street outside the court. Traffic was blocked as the chanting crowd began to march down the busy street in northern Jakarta which was quickly blocked off by police and soldiers armed with automatic rifles. Armed soldiers had been positioned on buildings overlooking the court, but since the army announced on Tuesday that it would shoot troublemakers on sight there have been no more violent demonstations in Jakarta. A piece of wood was dropped from a building on an armoured car, and one man was dragged away by plain clothes security agents, but the demonstration was otherwise peaceful and broke up after an hour.

Ms Megawati's supporters are under no illusions about their chances of winning the case, which intended only to draw attention to the government's manipulation of the opposition. The Indonesian judiciary is notoriously reluctant to find against the government. Earlier this year, a senior judge who blew the whistle on a court bribery scandal came under pressure from his own Chief Justice to step down.

"We filed the case because we hoped that while it was pending the government wouldn't have the nerve to take over the headquarters," said Luhut Pangaribuan, a lawyer for the PDI. "We were wrong, and this case won't in itself solve the problems of the PDI. But it's a means of opposing the government, and at this rate it might be three years or more until it's completely finished. My guess would be that the judge has nothing wrong with his health. He was quoted in the paper yesterday, and there was no mention of dentists then."

Opposition politicians and foreign diplomats have been surprised by the crudeness of the tactics adopted by the government of President Suharto who, after 30 years of unchallenged rule, is increasingly suspected of losing his touch. That the ousting of Ms Megawati should lead to riots in the capital is a grave embarrassment to the government and there are veiled signs of disgruntlement among members of the political and military establishment. Yesterday the speaker of the House of Representatives and confidant of the President named Wahono, was quoted in the Jakarta Post warning that: "We have to be able to accommodate the wishes of the people through constitutional means."

Blame for last weekend demonstrations is officially being placed on the People's Democratic Party (PRD), which is accused of plotting to overthrow the government. But "red peril" scares and shoot-on-sight directives are seen by critics as a crude method of dealing with dissent among an increasingly sophisticated and restive population.