Suharto stays away, so trial is postponed

Lawyers recite a litany of ailments and say he’s too sick to come to court; A-G Marzuki says: ‘I’m not surprised.’

Former President Suharto yesterday failed to show up for trial, further tainting the Indonesian legal system and casting serious doubts on whether Jakarta will be able to pursue its most high-profile corruption case.

A panel of five judges yesterday laid to rest any hope of a quick resolution by postponing the trial for two weeks.

Mr Suharto’s lawyers argued that the 79-year-old was medically unfit to stand trial, reciting a litany of problems that ranged from “the threat of impending recurring strokes” to hypertension, diabetes and “other ailments”.

The gallery of nearly 500 people, half of them journalists, responded with boos much louder than the rumbles of derision made just minutes earlier when they were told that the defendant was not present.

The decibel level was higher outside. Anti-Suharto demonstrators began jeering and tried to break through the iron fence surrounding the Agriculture Ministry building where the trial was to be held.

Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman said that Mr Suharto’s absence was something he had expected.

“I would have been very surprised if he had turned up,” he told The Straits Times. Apart from that, Mr Suharto was anything but predictable in the way he and his loyalists had blunted government efforts to get to the bottom of things, he added.

Warning of the difficulties ahead for Jakarta, Mr Marzuki said: “It is a classic situation which reminds us of the days when Suharto was in power. There was no way anyone could second-guess him. He is still being himself. This case is going to be a very long haul.”

He said that his office was looking at setting up an independent team of doctors to corroborate the findings on Mr Suharto’s health.

The prosecution yesterday said it was necessary to get a new set of medical opinions in addition to the reports by Mr Suharto’s private doctors as well as that of state appointed doctors.

Chief judge Lalu Mariyun said that the panel of judges would “consider further” during the two-week adjournment the demands for another group of doctors to examine Mr Suharto.

Mr Marzuki said that the government was prepared to serve another two summonses before turning to the Supreme Court to either authorise the Attorney-General to bring him to court forcibly or to try the case and pass a sentence in absentia. He said it could take as long as six months to resolve the matter. But analysts are doubtful whether it will be settled at all, given the weak legal system and the likelihood that Mr Suharto would do his best to avoid the dock.

Some observers believe that bombings in the capital – the most recent being a bus blast at the trial venue on Wednesday – are all part of an intimidation campaign by Suharto loyalists to force the government’s hand to go easy on the matter. President Abdurrahman Wahid has promised Mr Suharto a pardon, but only on condition that he stands trial first. Yesterday’s absence will surely put in doubt that pledge.

Posted in Indonesia