A blanket clemency offered yesterday to former Indonesian ruler Suharto on medical grounds comes at a time when Indonesia itself still seems adrift.
President Abdurrahman Wahid is out of the country. Indonesian generals have been slow to block the rise of militia and paramilitary forces operating in West Timor and the Maluku islands. Students and opposition leaders who brought down Suharto in 1998 are angry but offer little strategic vision - except rioting over the empty defendant's chair in a Jakarta lower court.
Suharto's trial was supposed to be a shining moment for ideals of "civil society" in Indonesia, a symbol that the country could deal with corruption, conduct civil reforms, repent for past mistakes, deliver justice for the millions who went under Suharto's boot - and enter into the international political mainstream.
While Mr. Wahid has said he would pardon Suharto, such clemency would only be granted after a show trial that showed no one was above the law.
Now, the test for Indonesia, say many analysts, is whether Attorney General Marzuki Darusman can continue prosecutions on the allegedly vast and illegal amounts of wealth accumulated by Suharto's children and business cronies.
From the time Suharto was placed under house arrest, and again in early August when Mr. Marzuki announced the prosecution of Suharto - Indonesians had been accommodating themselves to the idea that the former strongman would not be tried for any alleged crimes while he was head of state. Rather, the charges against him for "mishandling" about half a billion dollars in a set of seven charitable foundations were low-level corruption charges within the ambit of Indonesian law.
Both the lower court judges and the attorney general could technically pass the buck to the Supreme Court - both on the question of Suharto's health, and whether he can be tried in absentia, but the chief judge on the 5-member panel refused to refer the case. Chief prosecutor Muchtar Arifin immediately announced plans to appeal.
Some of the country's most eminent physicians were appointed to assess defense claims that Suharto was too ill to face trial. The 24-member team included representatives of some of Indonesia's most prestigious medical schools, with little motive to perjure themselves. After an examination a few days ago, they concluded that Suharto's private doctors were correct when they said he was not fit to stand trial. Among the problems the doctors cited were Suharto's inability to handle complex ideas and serious trouble speaking.
"The court is not going to do a check, because the court believes the results of the team," chief judge Lalu Mariyun said after hearing three hours of evidence, giving the benefit of the doubt to the medical team.
Unfortunately, people on the streets did not. Hundreds of anti-Suharto protesters clashed with Suharto supporters as the result was announced, badly beating several of them and prompting police to fire tear gas and make a handful of arrests. Demonstrators later marched on Suharto's house, demanding a "people's court."
The court's decision means an order restricting Suharto to Jakarta is lifted. "So far, it's over," said Suharto's chief lawyer, Juan Felix Tampubolon.
But it was not all good news for Suharto supporters. Justice Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra also announced that the government would enforce a Supreme Court ruling overturning the acquittal of Suharto's youngest son in a separate corruption case last year. In a decision reached late last week, the Supreme Court imposed an 18-month jail term on Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, whose business dealings were controversial even when his father was undisputed strongman.
Suharto's longtime friend, Bob Hasan, is also on trial for corruption over a government aerial mapping contract.
Reform of the Indonesian legal system is a top priority both for the government and the international donors who are supporting its budget. It is an open secret that the system is riddled with corruption; a study released in Jakarta last month made headlines, arguing that at least 80 percent of judges had been known to take bribes. However, Tommy Suharto's jail term was announced after a series of new Supreme Court judges had been appointed, with credibility the top criterion.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society