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Palace cleaner goes to jail for stealing pens

INDONESIA HAS more than its share of problems these days, but among the greatest is the crisis of confidence in its justice system. The police are widely despised, corruption is ubiquitous and laws and regulations are routinely flouted by big companies and individuals with powerful connections.

For many Indonesians, it is a fact of life that there are different rules for the rich and for the poor. There have been few better examples than the case of Mulyadi bin Umar Khan, the presidential pen thief.

About the facts of the case, there is no doubt. Until April this year, Mr Mulyadi, 29, was a cleaner at Freedom Palace, the official residence of President B J Habibie. Among his duties was cleaning the office of one of Mr Habibie's aides. It was there, sometime last year, that he first found the pens.

These were no Bic ballpoints, but Mont Blanc fountain pens, used by the President as gifts for newly appointed Indonesian ambassadors. Mr Mulyadi sold nine of them for 2.8 million rupiah (pounds 250), and after pleading guilty this week, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

"The defendant has stolen the pens, which belong to the state," presiding Justice Purwanto observed in his judgment. "In stealing the pens on four different occasions he committed the crime with deliberation." But the case illustrates the gulf separating Indonesia's elite from its poorest citizens.

Before being sentenced, Mulyadi stated that as presidential cleaner he was paid 82,500 rupiah (pounds 7.37) a month - in other words, the retail cost of a Mont Blanc pen (3 million rupiah) was for him equivalent to three years' salary. But his monthly rent alone cost 120,000 rupiah (pounds 10.71), excluding living expenses. "Many presidential palace officials did the same thing, bringing home shirts and wall clocks from the palace," he told the Jakarta Post. "I thought it would be OK to bring home some pens."

Mr Mulyadi might have pointed out that former occupants of Freedom Palace took more than ornaments. During his 32 years in power, Mr Habibie's patron and predecessor, General Suharto, amassed a fortune for himself and his family, selling contracts and franchises to businessmen.

The sums lost to the state byhis actions are incalculable, but the Suharto family riches are estimated in the millions of dollars. More than a year after his fall from power, neither the former president nor any of his cronies have been charged.