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Wednesday, 30 August, 2000, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Suharto trial: Political gimmick?
Protesters covered in fake blood demonstrate against human rights abuses by past governments
Many want Mr Suharto tried for human rights abuses
By Simon Ingram

When, or if, Indonesia's former strongman, ex-president Suharto, appears in a Jakarta courtroom, the symbolism of the moment will be lost on no-one.

Mr Suharto's trial opened on 31 August only to be quickly adjourned to allow for the preparation of medical evidence about whether the ageing defendant is fit to appear. Mr Suharto was not in court.

But such are the flaws in the judicial system trying him that many in Indonesia wonder whether the process is any more than a political gimmick.

The corruption charges against Mr Suharto will be heard by a panel of five judges, appointed by the South Jakarta District Court. The presiding judge will be Lalu Mariyun.

For security reasons, a makeshift courthouse has been built in a large auditorium at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Juan Felix Tampubolon, one of the lawyers for Suharto
Defending Mr Suharto: Juan Felix Tampubolon
Hundreds of police will be stationed around the ministry complex and a helicopter will be used to ferry the ailing 79-year old former leader to and from his home.

'Fatally flawed'

The prosecution case is contained in a document of more than 3,000 pages. It accuses Mr Suharto of having misappropriated US $571m from a number of huge tax-free charity foundations that he controlled until he was forced from power in May 1998.

The money was allegedly funnelled into some of the businesses run by members of the Suharto family, their friends and entourage.

Suharto supporters demonstrate against his trial
Mr Suharto still has some support in Indonesia
But Indonesian legal experts say the prosecution case may be fatally flawed. They say that under Indonesian law it will be very hard to prove a charge of corruption when the offence committed could arguably be construed under the milder definition of mismanagement of state funds.

Remy Sjahdeini, an expert on banking law, said: "What Suharto did was not corruption in the strict legal sense. During his years in power he issued presidential decisions which effectively made what he did legal."

Mr Suharto's lawyers say they are optimistic of proving their client's innocence.

Defence counsel Mohamed Assegaf said: "This case is more political than legal. There is no legal basis [for the trial] at all."

There are additional doubts over the ability of the Indonesian judicial system to conduct a fully fair trial.

The recent record of the South Jakarta court in hearing corruption cases suggests a strong reluctance to obtain convictions.

According to the daily newspaper, Kompas, in six recent corruption cases heard by the court - one of them involving ex-president Suharto's son, Tommy - the prosecution lost each time. Two defendants were acquitted and in the other cases the judge dismissed the charges.

Human rights

Confidence in the country's legal system suffered another blow in August when a key defendant in the politically-sensitive Bank Bali scandal, Djoko Tjandra, was acquitted. The judge declared that the case was a civil one, and promptly cleared Mr Tjandra of all criminal charges.

Many Indonesians believe that more than two years after being toppled from power, Mr Suharto still has the necessary influence within the establishment to ensure the collapse of the case against him. Such an outcome would certainly antagonise the student protesters who forced the administration of President Abdurrahman Wahid to take Mr Suharto to court.

The protesters argue that instead of being charged with corruption, Mr Suharto should be prosecuted for the many violations of human rights that happened during his 32 years in office.

To date, there is little to suggest such a course of action anytime soon.

The trial of Mr Suharto has been further complicated by a constitutional amendment passed by the Peoples' Consultative Assembly making it impossible to prosecute military leaders retroactively in cases of human rights abuses.

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