Global Policy Forum

Suharto Avoids International Tribunal


By Slobodan Lekic

Associated Press
March 28, 2006

The spotlight of international justice has shone on Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic to hold them accountable for alleged war crimes. But many are asking: what about Suharto? Indonesia's dictator for 32 years is widely believed responsible for the deaths of twice as many people as the former Iraqi and Serbian leaders combined, yet he lives freely in a posh residential district of Jakarta. ``Suharto certainly belongs in the same category as Milosevic or Saddam as far as crimes against humanity are concerned,'' said Dede Oetomo, a human rights activist and professor at Airlangga University in Surabaya. ``He receives preferential treatment in the West because he delivered Indonesia to them during the Cold War, while nobody in the political class here sees any benefit in pursuing him.''

Critics say Suharto's and other cases highlight an inconsistency that lends credibility to charges that the trials in The Hague and Baghdad are ``victors' justice.'' In Iraq, Saddam's tumultuous trial is continuing in fits and spurts, while the effort to bring Milosevic to justice came to an abrupt halt this month when he died in custody at the International War Crimes Tribunal.

But Suharto, 85, is among half a dozen former despots around the world who have managed to evade or delay justice for their alleged misdeeds. They include Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam, who directed the ``Red Terror'' of the 1970s but now lives comfortably in exile in Zimbabwe, and Chile's former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose security forces murdered thousands of leftists and other political opponents from 1973 to 1990. He is free on bail after being charged in a tax-evasion case. Liberia's new government is urging Nigeria to extradite exiled warlord Charles Taylor, accused of causing tens of thousands of deaths during its civil war. And in Cambodia, no Khmer Rouge figure has stood trial for the death of an estimated 1.7 million people between 1975-79.

It weakens the deterrent force of war crimes tribunals, said Dr. Harold Crouch, an expert on Indonesia at the Australian National University. ``Obviously the deterrent value would be much greater if they indicted all these people,'' Crouch said. ``But Suharto always did what the West wanted him to do; that's the main difference between him and Saddam and Milosevic.''

Suharto was an unknown two-star general in 1965 when he put down a still-unexplained military mutiny which he attributed to leftist officers. In the confusion that followed, Suharto seized power from the legal government and launched a purge in which at least a half million people - mostly communists, socialists, trade unionists and other leftists - were executed. As he tightened his grip, Suharto quickly gained support from Washington and other Western capitals, which viewed him as a bulwark against communism in Southeast Asia.

Washington facilitated Indonesia's 1969 takeover of the former Dutch colony of West Papua, and acquiesced in its 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. The long wars that followed have claimed 200,000 lives in West Papua, human rights monitors say, and 183,000 in East Timor according to a U.N. and East Timorese government report. The number of innocent Iraqis who perished during Saddam's rule is usually put at over 300,000, with no precise statistics available. Milosevic's wars in former Yugoslavia are said to have claimed at least 200,000 lives, although some place the figure lower.

In Indonesia, several dozen officers have been tried on charges of killing of hundreds of civilians in East Timor and elsewhere during Suharto's time, but all were freed. ``If you can't convict a captain, how can you convict his president?'' said Crouch. The leaders of Indonesia's fledgling democracy set out to try Suharto for corruption, gave up, and have never sought to bring him to justice for war crimes.

``The problem for any post-Suharto government is that it is difficult to bring him to trial ... because he is still backed and supported by the military, which itself participated in the killings of tens of thousands of people,'' said Munarman, head of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation. Like Suharto, he goes by one name. ``The politicians have to be very careful. There is still a very real possibility the military could wrest back power,'' he said.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on Ad-Hoc Court for East Timor
More Information on East Timor


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.