Global Policy Forum

Suharto Is Formally Charged With Corruption


By Seth Mydans

New York Times
August 4, 2000

Sick, bewildered and besieged at his home by angry protesters, former President Suharto was formally charged today with corruption during his 32 years of unchecked power in Indonesia. The charge involves only a small part of the widespread corruption imputed to him, but it sends a significant signal that Indonesia is trying to overhaul its economy and political system and lay the basis for the rule of law.

President Abdurrahman Wahid has said repeatedly that he will pardon Mr. Suharto, but only after the legal process is complete. He has also suggested that the former president can strike a deal by returning his wealth to the nation.

Unless his lawyers can use his illness and mental incapacity following a stroke to delay things, Mr. Suharto, 79, may be put on trial this month, Attorney General Marzuki Darusman said. "The official charge legally, of course, will be done in the courtroom," Mr. Darusman said. "But as of today, he has been officially charged by the attorney general's office."

Some political experts said the attorney general was trying to hurry things before a state-of-the nation address by President Wahid next week. Progress in the case may be one of the few concrete accomplishments Mr. Wahid will be able to present as his country struggles to find its footing after Mr. Suharto's forced resignation in May 1998.

The charge -- like a series of interrogations that led up to it -- was presented at Mr. Suharto's home in central Jakarta, where he has been confined to house arrest since May. Unappeased, a small group of mostly young protesters rallied in the streets outside, as they have many times before, raising a familiar battle cry: "Hang Suharto!"

Both prosecutors and defense lawyers have said the former president is frail and has shown difficulty in comprehending and answering questions. They offered conflicting accounts today on whether he had been alert enough to sign a formal acknowledgment of the charges. "A person who cannot explain his thoughts should not be put on trial," said Muhamad Assegaf, one of Mr. Suharto's lawyers.

But the attorney general's office said its case also included the testimony of more than 100 witnesses, including three of his six children. Technically, the proceedings today involved the presentation of the case by Mr. Darusman's office to the city prosecutor's office. At that moment, lawyers on both sides said, Mr. Suharto's status shifted from "the suspect" to "the accused."

The case focuses on the misuse of at least $150 million funneled through tax-free charitable foundations controlled by Mr. Suharto. That falls far short of the billions of dollars that he, along with his family and circle of favored friends, is widely reported to have stolen. Mr. Darusman said he was seeking to carve a narrow and provable case out of a complex web of financial manipulation during Mr. Suharto's tenure, much of it legalized at the time by presidential decrees.

In an interview last month, the attorney general said investigators had not been able to find any money hidden overseas and were concentrating on the former president's assets in Indonesia. Two buildings connected to the charitable foundations have been seized by the government. Though the action today symbolized the Wahid administration's good intentions, there has been little progress so far in reforming the laws and institutions that Mr. Suharto manipulated.

The major monopolies of the Suharto years have mostly been broken, said James Castle, who heads the Castle Group, a consulting and investment advising company. And there is less large-scale corruption because there are fewer lucrative investments in Indonesia's slumping economy. "Yes, corruption is down," Mr. Castle said, "but the opportunities for it are down. And we are still waiting for the legal reforms that would ensure that when things pick up, it does not reappear like before."

For some Indonesians, the charging of Mr. Suharto today was far from satisfactory. Albert Hasibuan, a human rights lawyer affiliated with a private group called Corruption Watch, said he was disappointed by the narrow focus of the case. "The charges should include not only the foundations but also the collusion and nepotism which has benefited the children and the cronies and has robbed the state of billions of dollars," he said.

On the other hand, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political scientist who was an adviser to Mr. Wahid's predecessor as president, B. J. Habibie, said that although people wanted the case to go forward, "few of the political elite want to see Suharto behind bars." They apparently do not want to see him on their banknotes, either. As of Aug. 21, the 50,000 rupiah bill that bears his image (once worth $20 and now worth less than $6) will no longer be legal tender. In its place, a new bank note carries a portrait of the composer of the national anthem, Wage Rudolf Soepratman.

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