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Questions remain after Indonesia trial

31 December 08 13:19 GMT

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Jakarta

Acquittals usually leave a multitude of questions in their wake, and the acquittal of Indonesia's spy chief Muchdi Purwopranjono leaves a stack of them.

This trial was seen as a test of Indonesia's 10-year-old democracy.

Never before had a senior intelligence chief been called to account like this for the murder of a human rights activist.

And people watched it breathlessly: how far had the civilian government come in taming the country's powerful military and intelligence communities?

They also questioned whether the courts really would convict the former deputy spy chief.

The answer, as it turned out, was no.

There just was not enough evidence, the judge said, to prove convincingly that Mr Purwopranjono had ordered the murder of the activist Munir Said Thalib.

'Partial trial'

Munir's supporters have, unsurprisingly perhaps, cried foul, which brings us to our first question: was it a fair trial?

Munir's widow, Suciwati, described it as a "partial trial" - the judge simply did not consider all the facts and evidence, she explained, including parts of her own testimony she felt were important.

But at least she testified. One of the biggest problems to hit the prosecution was a sudden lack of key witnesses, many of them from inside the National Intelligence Agency itself.

Some witnesses would not turn up at court, or retracted statements implicating their former boss.

Munir's supporters allege this is the result of intimidation by the agency, including death threats. That is unproven, but the lack of witnesses has certainly helped feed the image of the agency as all-powerful, perhaps even above the law.

And that's the second question in all of this: what does the trial say about the power of senior intelligence chiefs in the country?

Well, without evidence of why witnesses changed their statements, it is hard to say.

What is clear is that the trial has done little to dispel the fear people feel for the state intelligence agency, and the sense that they - and the country's military generals - are somehow untouchable.

The current government under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came into power with a promise to clean up corruption and enforce the rule of law.

And some areas have shown results. For the first time, senior officials including parliamentarians are being routinely called in by the Corruption Eradication Commission to account for fraud.

The army has been given until next year to shed the military businesses it largely funds itself with, and MPs are now debating a new law which will mean soldiers being tried in civilian courts.

But the Intelligence Agency remains a shadowy presence in the public mind - partly why this trial was seen as such a watershed.

Questions remain

So, the final question in all this: where do we go from here? The acquittal, and the hiccups in the trial itself, will probably make it harder to build a case against other former spy chiefs, as human rights groups would like.

It may also lead to questions over the conviction of the man who was found guilty of actually carrying out Munir's murder - Polycarpus Priyanto - who is currently serving 20 years in jail.

But it also leaves unresolved and unproven the issue of who ordered him to carry out the killing.

Professor Tim Lindsey, from the Asian Law Centre at Melbourne University, believes that given the lack of evidence available, "it would have required a significant distortion of legal logic and process to convict Muchdi Purwopranjono."

But, he says, the questions remain: why witnesses failed to testify and why key government documents were not released.

Mr Lindsey believes those answers will only come to light when the case reaches the Supreme Court.

That is where it is now heading. Munir's supporters are already urging the country's attorney-general to put in an appeal.

Controversial as it is, this case has acquired its own momentum, and the story - of both Munir's murder and of Indonesia's democracy - does not end here.

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