Indonesia shows initial resolve to implement justice

On Friday, Jakarta official tells of plans to prosecute former dictator Suharto.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The wheels of justice are beginning to grind in Indonesia.

On Friday, Attorney General Marzuki Darusman said the country's former dictator, Suharto, would be brought to trial on corruption charges within two months. Last Wednesday, 24 soldiers and one civilian were convicted of last year's murder of a politically active Muslim teacher and his students in the rebellious province of Aceh.

In a Monitor interview, Mr. Darusman also said that by the end of July prosecutors would bring to trial Indonesian military officials involved in last year's violence in East Timor.

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He said suspects would be named in five priority cases in East Timor, including that of Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes, who was killed last September as the Indonesian military withdrew from the territory.

Despite these signs of progress, a lot more remains to be done in Indonesia to establish the rule of law than has been accomplished in the seven months that the reformist government of President Abdurrahman Wahid has been in office. The need for these reforms is intense: Scores of people have been killed this year by mobs unwilling to leave suspected criminals in the hands of police and the courts, which are seen as easily corruptible.

Politically, President Wahid needs to match promises that he will seek justice with concrete actions. The country's students are growing increasingly frustrated that Mr. Suharto has not been brought to trial. Street protests are occurring more frequently, especially around the ex-dictator's house in central Jakarta.

The government's inability, so far, to resolve cases of massive commercial fraud dating from the Suharto era is one reason why foreign investors are biding time before returning to the country. A lack of trust in the legal system is undermining Indonesia's recovery from the East Asian economic crisis, as evidenced by recent declines in the value of Indonesia's currency.

Mr. Wahid seems to be concentrating on maintaining national unity and shoring up Indonesia's legal framework, rather than on the economy. Critics are worrying aloud about his priorities, but the International Monetary Fund has enough confidence in his administration that it is going ahead with a $400 million loan this June.

But the president occasionally seems to backtrack on his own priorities.

Recently, members of an Islamic civic and religious organization that Wahid used to lead stormed the offices of a newspaper that published reports about corruption within the organization. Wahid was generally supportive of the attack on the newspaper, saying it had published inaccurate information, a response that his own attorney general calls "unfortunate."

More encouraging has been the military's response to the prosecution of its members for crimes in Aceh and East Timor. Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said in an interview that the military's leaders accept "that they must pay for past mistakes."

"I don't feel that there is any major unrest among the officer corps," Mr. Sudarsono says, "although I think they feel a bit uneasy about the level of public acceptance of the credibility of the process."

That credibility is being challenged in part because the most senior officer convicted in the recent Aceh trials was a captain; critics and students have said culpability must be placed higher. Indeed, the commander of Indonesia's elite Strategic Forces, Lt. Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah, called on Saturday for senior officers to be brought to trial for abuses in Aceh. Those already convicted, he said, "just followed orders from their commandants."

Attorney General Darusman complains of military slow-footedness in response to his investigations, but not in all cases. "It's not pressure [on his office from the military], but it's this delay and slowing down of procedures and investigations, especially in the case of Aceh," says the attorney general. "But in the case of East Timor we've been able to overcome that, because I think international pressure has also helped to push [military officers] ahead and there was no way they could avoid this being done against some of their personnel."

The Indonesian government has a strong interest in punishing military abuses in Aceh because the president and other leaders believe that justice is necessary to convince the Acehnese to remain within Indonesia. East Timor, on the other hand, is no longer a part of the country, and some observers have questioned whether the government will risk alienating the military by pushing hard for high-level convictions.

In contrast to a government-backed human rights inquiry on the East Timor violence, which named the former armed forces commander and other top officials as those who should be held accountable, Darusman says he will take a bottom-up approach in court. As in the Aceh case, this strategy will mean obtaining convictions of soldiers and non-commissioned officers and then going after more senior commanders.

In Aceh, he says, "the trials have disclosed further information about the individual responsibilities of others and we will be investigating the commander of the regiment ... and from then on it's still possible that we will go even higher up."

"Our sense is that [Darusman] and the people around him are serious and intend to bring some people to trial," says a Western diplomat here, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the government's commitment to prosecuting members of the military for human rights violations in East Timor.

The diplomat adds that "the Indonesians continue to hear from [US Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright and from the Europeans that accountability for East Timor is going to continue to be important."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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