Suharto, tyrant of Indonesia, dies without facing justice

Indonesia's former dictator Suharto died yesterday. At least half a million people were killed during his 32 years in power, but he was never brought to justice.

Suharto, 86, had clung to life tenaciously after being admitted to a Jakarta hospital three weeks ago with failing kidneys, heart and lungs. Yesterday, despite the efforts of dozens of Indonesia's best doctors, he fell into a coma and was pronounced dead at 1.10pm local time.

He came to power on a wave of anti-Communist hysteria in 1966 but was toppled in 1998 following mass street protests triggered by the Asian economic crisis.

Indonesia then embraced democracy but the ex-dictator, who presided over some of the region's worst human rights abuses, was never brought to account, and was able to live out a peaceful retirement in a leafy Jakarta neighbourhood. State prosecutors accused the former army general of embezzling $600m much of it allegedly channelled to his inner circle, including his family. But in 2006 judges ruled he was too ill to stand trial. Critics claimed the decision had more to do with the awe in which Suharto continued to be held by his successors, all of whom had pledged to stamp out corruption.

And as he lay in hospital, much of that time on a life support machine, victims of his repressive regime fumed at the failure to prosecute him for mass murder. In the mid-1960s Suharto – who ousted Indonesia's first post-war president, Sukarno – supervised a purge of suspected Communists that saw between 500,000 and a million people killed.

Until the the Khmer Rouge's atrocities in Cambodia a decade later, it was the bloodiest event in the region since the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands more people were killed over the years in the restive provinces of Aceh and Papua, where Suharto sent in the military to quell independence movements. Thousands died in East Timor, which he invaded in 1975.

Determined to crack down on dissent and keep the sprawling archipelago intact, he stationed soldiers in every village in Indonesia. Thousands of political prisoners, including the country's best known author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, were incarcerated in labour camps.

Yet he still evokes fond memories among many Indonesians, particularly on his native Java island, not least because of the economic prosperity that the country of 235 million people enjoyed under his rule. "Pak (father) Harto", as he was affectionately known, liked to call himself the "father of development".

After his downfall, Suharto – whose totalitarian regime was supported by the US and Australia, among others – was regarded as untouchable by Indonesia's political and business elite. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cut short a visit to Malaysia to fly to Suharto's bedside when his condition deteriorated. Mr Yudhoyono lauded the dictator's achievements, "even though as a human being, and like other leaders, Pak Harto had some deficiencies and made some mistakes".

A stream of Asian leaders paid their respects to Suharto in hospital, including two former fellow strongmen: Malaysia's ex-president Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew. The Philippine President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, praised Suharto yesterday for promoting regional unity.

His children and associates, meanwhile, continue to enjoy the fruits of his reign. Transparency International, the anti-corruption pressure group, has estimated the former president amassed a personal fortune of between $15bn and $35bn, much of it through bribes and kickbacks. But last year he won a $106m lawsuit against Time magazine after it accused his family of stealing $15bn of state funds.

Suharto's body was expected to be flown today to the family mausoleum, situated on a mountain top outside the city of Solo, in central Java. In a statement, President Yudhoyono declared: "Mr Suharto has done a great service to the nation."

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