Suharto trial date penciled in
Whether Indonesia's former leader will show to answer corruption charges on Aug. 31 is in question.
He was a five-star Army general who took over the country during a bloodbath that cost 600,000 lives. Ruling as the big man of Southeast Asia for 32 years, Indonesians dared not openly talk about former President Suharto except in praise. When student protesters toppled his government in 1998, their rallying cry was, "Suharto is the door."Skip to next paragraph
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On Aug. 31 that door may crack open a few more inches, when the elderly, ailing Suharto, now living under "city arrest," has his first trial date on the charge of "enriching himself at the state's expense." The 400-seat Ministry of Agriculture amphitheater will be the convenient broadcast venue for a trial that officials hope is payment on a promise to reverse the corruption and fearful repression that characterized two generations of military rule.
Yet for Wasi Gede, a student leader on the ramparts in '98, who now monitors corruption from a small office across town, the trial is a disappointment. "This is just theater," he says. "There is nothing like the mass support or understanding that would bring meaning to this event for the millions of poor people who are the victims of Suharto."
Indeed, it appears that action against the former president will be something of a show trial - that is, if Mr. Suharto even shows up. The spectacle of Suharto being led to court is an exercise in symbolism designed to show that no one is above the law, experts say. But the charges will not address any human crimes or reach the level of seriousness that could bring a large-scale process of national education and reconciliation that student leaders and many civil authorities hoped for.
Suharto, for example, will not be tried for any violations as president. He will be tried on a relatively low-level corruption charge as the chairman of seven charitable foundations accused of "misusing" $420 million. Under law, Suharto can argue executive privilege for abuses of power while in office.
"There are not grounds for real prosecution," says Loebby Loekman, a legal scholar at Trisakti University in Jakarta. "Suharto can easily say his ministers were following a policy. So what we have is a small corruption case - not the grand trial most people envisioned."
In that sense, experts say, the trial is unlikely to mark a definitive break from the old regime, as happened in the extended Truth and Reconciliation court proceedings after apartheid in South Africa, or with the dispatch of the Marcos family in the Philippines.
There is also the little problem of whether Suharto will show. His lawyers say he is unfit for trial. Outside medical experts examining Suharto disagree.
Still, the first question asked in Indonesian courts by a judge is whether the defendant is "in a state" of health to stand trial. If Suharto does not show after being summoned three times, the trial will close - temporarily, at least. Moreover, Judge Lalu Mariyun has not guaranteed to Attorney General Marzuki Darusman that he will conduct a trial without Suharto, as some news broadcasts reported this week.
That leaves much of the Suharto trial up to the Supreme Court. Whether Suharto can be tried in absentia, and whether he can be brought forcibly to trial if he does not show up - will have to be decided by the high court, Mr. Darusman told the Monitor.