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Thursday, 28 September, 2000, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Suharto: Shades of Pinochet?

Mr Suharto's health has declined since his resignation in 1998
Lawyers for former Indonesian President Suharto argued throughout the investigation into his alleged corruption that he was too ill to answer complex questions or to stand trial.

That has now been accepted by judges and the case dismissed, after independent doctors decided Mr Suharto was permanently physically and mentally unfit.

General Pinochet waves to supporters on his return to Santiago, 3 March 2000
General Pinochet may still have to face trial
In some ways the case echoes that of former Chilean President General Augusto Pinochet, who in March 2000 was released from the UK after more than 16 months house arrest and allowed to return to Chile on grounds of ill health.

Spain had been calling for his extradition to stand trial on genocide and torture charges, but following medical reports, UK Home Secretary Jack Straw decided he was too ill to face questioning.

It was a bitter blow for human rights campaigners when they saw the 84-year-old General Pinochet arrive in Santiago to a triumphant welcome, get out of his wheelchair and walk to greet his supporters, aided by a walking stick.

Medical arguments

There were those who accused him of having feigned illness to avoid facing trial. Others said it was an act of compassion to release an elderly man who may have died during the trial anyway.

In August, Chile's Supreme Court decided to strip Mr Pinochet of the immunity from prosecution he holds as a life senator, opening the way to a trial after all. Judge Juan Guzman is investigating more than 170 cases against the former leader.

Protest
Student demonstrators wanted Mr Suharto to be put on trial
But Mr Suhato, 79, now looks almost certain to escape the humiliation of a trial - even though the prosecution has vowed to appeal the verdict.

The former dictator, who suffered a stroke in 1999, has made few public appearances since he resigned as president in 1998.

Eyewitnesses said he seemed in good health at his daughter's wedding in Jakarta in January 2000, walking unaided and chatting with guests.

But a month later he did not show up when first summoned for questioning. His lawyers and doctor argued he was too ill to attend.


I think it is possible to be trained to behave in the way that a person with dementia would behave

Professor Tony Warnes
In March an independent medical examination decided Mr Suharto was well enough to be questioned about his financial dealings, but the former president's legal team said the results were misinterpreted.

Faking it?

A leading UK gerontologist, Professor Tony Warnes, told the BBC he thought illness could be faked.

"I think it is possible to be trained to behave in the way that a person with dementia would behave," he added.

"It is training in the way people respond to questions, their limb movements, in the way they wander about and so on."
Suharto resignation, 1998
Mr Suharto resigned as president in 1998
Professor Warnes said old age alone was not a reason to avoid questioning, but brain damage was.

But in cases of brain damage he said the condition was irreversible and it would not be morally right to subject the person to questioning.

"People of 105 can be perfectly well mentally and have sufficient energy to face an inquiry," he added.

"But it is unfortunately true that during late life there is a rise in dementia and other kinds of organic brain damage. That means that people cannot understand what they are asked, they can't remember things and they can't answer coherently."

Pardon

Mr Suharto's trial finally opened on 31 August only to be quickly adjourned to allow for the preparation of medical evidence about his health. The case was dismissed on 28 September, in a surprise reprieve for Mr Suharto, who was also released from house arrest.

But even if he had stood trial and been found guilty, President Abdurrahman Wahid had made it clear he would pardon the former leader, as a gesture of compassion.

In Chile, however, General Pinochet must await his fate. Only this week a judge ordered that he undergo medical tests to see whether he is mentally fit to stand trial.

Under Chilean law, only those certified as demented can be excused from trial.

Whatever is decided, Mr Pinochet, like Mr Suharto, has been through a dramatic fall from grace.

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