Suharto trial a solid step for Indonesia

Today, what was unfathomable just three years ago is due to happen. Former Indonesian President Suharto is scheduled to go on trial for "enriching himself at the state's expense." He's accused of misusing state funds through a network of charitable foundations that civil servants and state enterprises were obliged to donate to. These foundations were to build schools, hospitals, and the like, but some of the money was allegedly misused for the benefit of Mr. Suharto's family.He denies any wrongdoing.

The money at stake in these charges is about $550 million - a significant sum, but just the tip of the Suharto family's estimated financial iceberg.

President Abdurrachman Wahid has estimated the Suharto fortune to be $45 billion, enough to pay Indonesia's debt to the International Monetary Fund.Time magazine was more conservative, estimating the family fortune at $15 billion and pointing out Suharto's money must have come from somewhere outside his presidential salary of $50,000 a year. Suharto filed a defamation suit against Time, but his case was thrown out of a Jakarta court in June.

The scope of the charges leveled at Suharto is limited - he won't be tried for violations as president, but as chairman of seven charitable foundations. Even so, Indonesian law allows him to argue executive privilege for abuses of power while in office. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. But the chances he'll see the inside of a jail cell are scant. Mr. Wahid has said he will pardon Suharto if he's found guilty; but he has conditioned a pardon on Suharto returning stolen funds. Wahid has been trying to broker a deal with the Suharto family for the return of assets allegedly stolen.

There's also the question of whether Suharto will even show up at his trial. While a government medical report in March declared him competent to appear in court, his lawyers contend he's unfit to stand trial because a series of strokes have left him brain-damaged. Just hours before the trial, a medical team examining Suharto is supposed to report on his ability to stand trial. Indonesian law stipulates that a trial can't start if the charges aren't read to the accused in person.

Ordinary Indonesians, especially older ones, seem ambivalent about jailing their former leader, given his advanced age and troubled health. They have no reservations about investigating and prosecuting his children, who undoubtedly have joint custody of any stolen funds.

Critics of the trial are disappointed tougher action against Suharto won't be taken, including prosecution over human rights abuses under his rule. They argue his trial denies justice for the thousands who suffered imprisonment, disappearance, and death.

Critics and dissidents are probably wishing Indonesia could emulate the recent Supreme Court decision in Chile that former dictator Augusto Pinochet can be tried for "unquestionable criminal behavior" during his 17-year rule. The Chilean ruling is a sign of democratic maturity. Indonesia's democratic development, however, is in its infancy, and given the nation's myriad problems - from an ailing economy to separatist pressures across the archipelago - trying Suharto for human rights violations isn't high on the government agenda.

Still, the filing of corruption charges against Suharto represents an important move toward accountability and transparency for a nation that has seen little of both since its founding 53 years ago. It is important that Indonesia learns how to impartially enforce its laws and demonstrate that no one is above the law. Hopefully, the charges against Suharto, despite their limited scope, will be a step toward ensuring that future generations of Indonesians will live in a country where rule of law is respected and access to justice is guaranteed.

*John J. Brandon is an assistant director of The Asia Foundation. The views expressed here are his own.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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