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Any Suharto trial remains unlikely

Canberra Times - January 1, 1999

When Indonesia's Attorney General, Andi Mohamad Ghalib, formally named former president Suharto on December 23 last year as a suspect in a corruption case over a tax-exempt national car project, most politically aware Indonesians knew not to expect too much.

In fact, only a month before that, on November 24, Indonesia's activist students, in their frustration, delivered a symbolic insult to the Attorney General Mr Andi Mohamad Ghalib.

They presented him with a live chicken and, as if to make sure the insult was clearly understood, they also carried a banner depicting a pretty hen with Ghalib's face, all made up, wearing bright red lipstick, and on its head, a headdress consisting of a bra and a pair of white knickers.

Frightfully politically incorrect in the feminist sense, yet no feminists or women's groups protested, because everyone understood the power of the insult, and the reason for it.

In investigating Suharto's wealth, believed to have been obtained through corruption, collusion and nepotism during his 32 years in power, the Attorney General has been generous with promises but delivering very little.

Amien Rais, chairman of the newly founded National Mandate Party, once commented, "If Habibie and Ghalib were serious about investigating the wealth of the Suharto family, they would have started and gone far. There is ample evidence." Started Ghalib has, but progressed he has not. He has been carefully confining his investigations into the Suharto family's wealth to land and cash holdings in local banks.

When the Minister for Home Affairs, Akbar Tanjung announced on November 15 that the investigations had revealed that the family controlled nine million hectares of forest concessions while Suharto himself held around $ US13 million ($ A21.5 million) in local bank accounts, many in the know broke into sardonic laughter, while the students promptly protested in street demonstrations.

Forbes magazine has estimated Suharto's personal wealth at $ US4 billion ($ A6.5 billion), and Geoff Hiscock in his book Asia's Wealth Club, places the family's wealth in the $ US6.3 billion ($ A10.3 billion) bracket.

If it is common knowledge inside and outside the country, why are Dr Habibie, the president and the Attorney General dragging their feet in bringing Suharto to trial? The short answer is, those in power have too much to lose if Suharto is proven guilty of massive corruption and misuse of power.

The Special Session of the People's Consultative Assembly early in November passed several regulations to get the much needed political reform off the ground. Regulation No 11, supposedly drafted to provide a legal framework for investigating corrupt practices in the government, simply provides for the running of a government free from corruption, collusion and nepotism, and includes investigating the wealth of former president Suharto, his family and his cronies.

Unfortunately this regulation is little more than a statement, and has no legal power to carry out the thorough investigations necessary. Mere rhetorics and lip said Kastorius Sinaga, a senior lecturer at the University of Indonesia and a frequent political commentator.

What is needed is an act of parliament giving specific powers to an investigation team to carry out the task. Here lies one of the problems. Habibie's government will legally end in June 1999, when the elections will be held, clearly not long enough for a new act of parliament to be passed. The alternative is a law in lieu of an act of parliament, which is usually passed when there is a pressing case. The first barrier to this step came from Suharto's legal adviser Yohanes Yacob. In his written statement to the Jakarta Post, Yacob warned that if the trial went ahead, many government officials and former officials, and their respective cronies who were suspected of involvement in corruption, would be dragged into a very complex and messy trial.

Behind Yacob's statement many can see the barely veiled threat from Suharto to Habibie himself. The latter's Batam Authority project, one of his family's many enterprises, has been jointly-managed with the Suharto family.

A probe into the Suharto's wealth would sooner or later hit the Habibie's family business. Habibie was in a dilemma. Being an aspiring presidential candidate for the June 1999 elections, he was under considerable pressure to be seen to get reform well on track, and bringing Suharto to trial was a pre-requisite. Unfortunately, while he had good advisers around him, he was also surrounded by power players who would fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.

Todung Mulya Lubis, well-known human rights lawyer, told an interesting story. In late November Habibie had agreed to endorse a law in lieu of an act of parliament drafted by another human rights lawyer, Adnan Buyung Nasution, specifically to investigate Suharto's wealth. The law would give the investigating team judicial powers comparable to those of a royal commission, such as powers to subpoena witnesses normally protected by various privileges.

Seven members of the team, including Lubis himself, had been appointed. Before the day ended, Habibie contacted the team and told them that he had changed his mind, that the Attorney General's office would be able to carry out the investigation itself. A very reliable source related to Lubis that shortly before that, when Attorney General Ghalib had heard of Habibie's decision he had threatened to resign. So Habibie had capitulated.

Lubis's story is consistent with that of former Attorney General Soedjono Atmonegoro. Atmonegoro initiated a probe into four of the foundations managed by Suharto. His investigations revealed that they were not charitable foundations as stipulated by their constitutions.

Atmonegoro then presented his findings to Habibie at 10am, on June 15, 1998. At 3pm on the same day I received a presidential letter, saying that I had been replaced.' Another barrier to the investigations comes from the Armed Forces, known as ABRI. It has been ABRI's culture to protect their own members from outside attacks. We have seen how they closed ranks when General Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law was implicated in the kidnappings and shootings of pro-democracy activists; how they formed their own Honour Council to deal with those involved in the Dili massacre in 1991.

Suharto is after all one of their elders, a five-star general, and what is more, was their Supreme commander for 32 years. It is therefore highly unlikely that General Wiranto, the commander-in-chief and minister for security and defence, would let any investigation team, civilian at that, come any where near Suharto.

In fact, on May 21, 1998, when Suharto resigned, Wiranto, until then Suharto's faithful aide-de-camp, delivered a solemn promise that ABRI would continue to protect Suharto and his family.

Even without self-interest at stake, it would take gigantic determination on Habibie's part to give the green light for any independent team to investigate and try Suharto. However, as most Indonesian political observers would agree, anything is possible in Indonesia, however unlikely it appears initially.