Tommy slips past police in East Java

They botched up chance to arrest fugitive son of Suharto recently, says Indonesian President; but they are sure of catching him soon.

Indonesian police botched up a chance to arrest the fugitive son of former President Suharto recently when they caught him briefly in a remote East Java town before he gave them the slip.

But President Abdurrahman Wahid, who disclosed the incident yesterday, said that the authorities were confident that Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra, the youngest and most notorious of Mr Suharto’s six children, would be caught soon. He said: “We know where he is and, when the timing is right, he will be detained.”

Tommy, a 38-year-old billionaire businessman, has been on the run from the law for almost two months, evading an 18-month sentence for corruption.

According to the account given by Mr Abdurrahman and his presidential spokesman, Mr Adhi Massardi, Tommy was detained about two weeks ago in East Java.

After his arrest, he demanded to meet the President and threatened to release incriminating evidence on tape against Mr Abdurrahman.

As a result, the police went to telephone the President in another room to seek instructions.

Mr Abdurrahman said: “I said, ‘There is no tape, just arrest him’.”

But when they returned to the room, Tommy had disappeared, the presidential spokesman said.

Local reports had suggested the so-called evidence to be a recording of a deal in which the former First Family had offered a huge sum of money in return for a presidential pardon for Tommy.

Giving a slightly different spin to Tommy’s arrest and escape, police and military sources in East Java said that they had received a tip-off that the business tycoon was planning to cross over to Bali from the East Java town of Banyuwangi. Police stepped up surveillance in the area and nearby districts for days before stumbling on Tommy in a convoy of cars heading for the Banyuwangi harbour for a ferry crossing to the resort island.

His car, an inconspicuous Japanese make, together with three others made a U-turn and sped off back into East Java after being held up for several minutes by plainclothes police personnel. The East Java police command immediately ordered road blocks throughout the province.

But it was to no avail. Indonesia’s most wanted man had slipped off once again.

Despite Mr Abdurrahman’s optimism, analysts believe that the authorities face “insurmountable difficulties” in catching Tommy.

Besides backing from New Order military elements, critics argue that there had also been “irregularities” in police efforts to find the fugitive.

The police chase in East Java might be an exception to the rule. But it could also be a result of the palace putting pressure on the police leadership to get to the bottom of things.

A presidential aide said Mr Abdurrahman went public on the police debacle in East Java not to demoralise them further, but to push them for results.

“The President is also striking a confident note that Tommy will be caught soon because he wants to give a very demoralised police force some hope in their efforts.”

Tommy has managed to give the law the slip despite a massive manhunt and the fact that he is one of Indonesia’s most recognisable faces.

Photographs of prosecutors trying to peer over the gate of his Jakarta mansion in pouring rain last month when they first tried to take him to jail – only to find he had slipped out hours before – are still a stinging reminder of the administration’s ineptitude in bringing the Suharto son to book.

Since then, it has been a cat-and-mouse game between the police and Tommy. Family and lawyers have denied knowledge of his whereabouts.

Police have searched the elder Suharto’s home in Jakarta and those of other family members several times, but have found no sign of Tommy. Speculation is rife that he is being “looked after” by army generals close to his father.

If imprisoned, he would be the first of his family to be put behind bars. His father, now 79, is facing a second attempt to try him on corruption charges.

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