Indonesia takes bite out of corruption

Trial resumes Wednesday of Tommy Suharto.

Indonesia, perhaps the world's most corrupt country, may be cleaning up its reputation.

The trial of the favorite son of Indonesia's longtime dictator Suharto, which resumes Wednesday, is seen as a barometer of an effective justice system in a country known for the opposite.

Hutomo Mandala Putra, known informally as Tommy Suharto, is the only member of the former first family to appear in court. He is charged with orchestrating the murder of a supreme court judge who had convicted him of corruption, illegal possession of weapons, and evading justice. If convicted, Tommy could face the death pentalty.

Tommy's trial comes hard on the heels of the opening last week of a special human-rights tribunal for the 1999 bloodshed in East Timor. It also coincides with a series of arrests in several high-profile corruption cases, including that of Akbar Tanjung, chief of Suharto's former political party, accused of graft in the 1999 general election. Mr. Tanjung goes on trial today.

"[President] Megawati has been criticized for her inaction, ... and she realizes that the stakes are huge if she doesn't move a little faster," says analyst Rizal Mallarangang.

Over the weekend, Ms. Megawati stepped up her anticorruption campaign, appealing to thousands of supporters for patience in allowing the rule of law to take hold. "Never be part of the problem of corruption, collusion, and nepotism," she is quoted as saying in the Jakarta Post. "It is impossible for the nation to uphold the law if we never give space for the law to serve."

Inside a packed courtroom on Wednesday, cameramen jostled for positions as Tommy was led to a chair in front of the three-man panel of judges who will decide his fate. He sat impassively, clad in a black and white batik shirt, for almost two hours as state prosecutors read out their indictment. The case was then adjourned until this Wednesday.

While nobody in Jakarta believes he will actually receive capital punishment, observers say the judges are under intense pressure not to let Tommy wriggle off the hook. "It would be risky for the judges to give him a weak sentence. Public opinion is too strong," says Bara Hasibuan, a business consultant.

In October 2000, Indonesia's Supreme Court sentenced Tommy to jail for corruption, but instead, he went on the lam for a year. Police led a much-ridiculed manhunt that included consulting clairvoyants for clues and midnight raids on nightclubs in Jakarta. He only reemerged after his lawyers managed to overturn the graft conviction.

But the case had taken a deadly twist with the drive-by shooting in July of Justice Syafiuddin Kartasasmita, who led the panel that convicted Tommy. Prosecutors allege that Tommy paid $10,000 to two men to kill Kartasasmita in order to avenge his conviction.

Tommy's trial has gripped the Indonesian public. The first day of the trial was broadcast live on local TV and dissected in great detail on talk shows. So much attention has been lavished on Tommy that his lawyers are now complaining that the media has already convicted their client.

"People don't want him punished because he is guilty [of a crime], but because he is perceived as an enemy, as a terrorist," his lawyer Elza Syarief told Reuters.

Tommy is the only member of the family to appear in court. A corruption case against his father, who resigned from office in May 1998, was dropped in 2000 after his lawyers said he was too ill to stand trial. Still, his lawyers may have a point when it comes to press coverage. During Tommy's yearlong hideout, newspapers tried to link him to several unexplained bomb blasts in Jakarta. Police also hinted at links between Tommy and separatist rebels in Aceh.

Even now, almost four years after his fall, Suharto's circle of friends and family is frequently blamed for the nation's many calamities. Just to utter "Cendana" – the name of the street in Jakarta where most of the family live – is to evoke a powerful clique who can supposedly manipulate the country's affairs at will.

But that may change, analysts say. "It's a sign of the declining power of the Cendana circle," says Hermawan Sulistyo, a historian. "The locus of power is moving to the circle of Megawati."

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