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Jakarta riots suspect

Wall Street Journal - July 28, 1998

Jay Solomon, Jakarta – Indonesian police, amid growing pressure on authorities to get to the heart of May riots, believe they may have found one of the instigators: a retired crime lord turned Islamic preacher.

Anton Medan, however, swears he's innocent and claims the real masterminds "must be high-ranking (military) officers who can manage and control the unrest systematically and simultaneously." This is the same perception held by a number of the nongovernmental leaders chosen last week by the government to join an investigative team looking into the unrest.

What's the truth? Indonesians say it may never be known. But the debate is proving that the pursuit of justice in Indonesia is growing as murky as this preacher's past. "We continually see (Mr. Medan's) name popping up in reports, but nothing is, as yet, conclusive," says Marzuki Darusman, a member of the investigative team.

Mr. Medan is clearly not your usual Muslim cleric. Chain-smoking, ridden with six bullet wounds, and, surprisingly, ethnic Chinese in a nation where the majority of the Chinese are Christian, he readily admits to having been a major player in Jakarta 's underworld until the early 1990s. His career, he concedes, included armed robbery, racketeering and gambling; it resulted in him spending 18 of his 40 years behind bars.

His life could inspire a script for a Hong Kong gangster film. Born Tan Hok Liang in North Sumatra, Mr. Medan says he was kicked out of his home while still in elementary school. By age 13, he was convicted of killing a man and sent to juvenile jail; Mr. Medan says he caught the man pilfering his hard-earned cash. He animatedly displays how he cut the man with a perforated ice saw.

"This started my life of crime," he says in his cramped home in the heart of Jakarta's Chinatown. The place is the base of his spiritual center that focuses on teaching Islamic doctrines to convicted criminals. He proudly claims to have preached at more than 380 of Indonesia's 424 prisons.

Perhaps his whole life would have been dedicated to the "dark side," Mr. Medan says, if it weren't for two things: jail and a particularly bad month in Las Vegas. He received his spiritual awakening from fellow inmates, he says; the lesson was reinforced by a gambling binge that he says cost him $4.2 million, nine homes, and a villa outside Jakarta. A life of crime "never would have satisfied my family," Mr. Medan says, as he sits near a painting of his six children.

His religious and familial credentials have done little to impress Jakarta police. At least twice during the past two weeks he has been questioned on allegations he helped organize a number of the events that shook Jakarta in mid-May, including the shootings of four students, massive rioting in North Jakarta , and the razing of Chinese tycoon Liem Sioe Liong's home.

Mr. Medan was made a suspect based on early evidence of his involvement in the riots, according to city police spokesman Lt. Colonel Edward Aritonang, local newspapers reported. Others in Jakarta believe Mr. Medan continues to work as a preman, or hoodlum, and say his religous work is used to mask other activities. "Don't be fooled by his antics," says one ethnic-Chinese businessmen who has operations in the Chinatown area.

Mr. Medan says he can see why he would be chosen as a scapegoat. His job keeps him in close contact with scores of criminals; he lives near the worst areas of Jakarta and he has an unsavory past. "It makes perfect sense," he concedes. "But how can a person like me, with only an elementary education, mobilize so many people? Where could I get the money?"

He charges that former Jakarta military commanders are trying to frame him. Members of the government of President B.J. Habibie, who as then-vice president took office after the riots prompted President Suharto to resign, have promised to investigate those responsible for Jakarta 's security at the time of the riots.

Mr. Medan also says he has been accused by police investigators of accepting money from military officers to organize criminals to create havoc, an accusation he says is "totally untrue." The only contact he has had with officers, he says, was an invitation to preach at a military command headquarters – an invitation he says he refused.

Rather then instigating riots, Mr. Medan says he tried to maintain peace during those fateful days in mid-May. Accompanied by more than 100 of his students and neighbors, he recalls fanning them out into Chinatown to protect Chinese homes and shops. Police counter that these same individuals were actually the culprits, but Mr. Medan says "there's no proof to support this." Responding to the allegation that he led the attack on Mr. Liem's home, Mr. Medan responds: "I don't even know where he lives."

Mr. Medan, in fact, says he remains confident he'll be exonerated. The police "have neither sufficient evidence nor eyewitnesses," he says. And rather than being preoccupied with the charges against him, he now says he's moving to solve another great mystery in Jakarta: reports that hundreds of Chinese women were raped.

But if Mr. Medan wasn't the mastermind behind May's unrest, who was? He says he is convinced that it was a high-ranking military officer, but he adds that his Islamic beliefs prohibit him from naming names. "Making allegations without hard proof is a sin," he says.