Skepticism over Suharto Suit Success

JAKARTA ~ A US$1.5-billion civil suit filed against former president Suharto is a political move to appease government critics and comes too late to retrieve missing money, analysts say.

The suit was filed on Monday against Suharto and a foundation that he chaired during his 32-year rule of Indonesia, and follows the abandoning of a criminal suit against the former strongman last year on grounds of ill health.

Suharto is 86 and spends his days as a near-recluse at his family’s compound in Jakarta. Transparency International estimates he embezzled 15 to $35 billion during his iron-fisted rule.

He sits at the top of their list of corrupt political leaders, trailed by the Philippines’ ex-president Ferdinand Marcos, who squirreled away less than a third of that.

Monday’s suit seeks to recover $440 million allegedly channeled through the foundation from public and private sources to prop up companies run by Suharto’s clan and cronies, plus $1.10 billion in damages.

Prosecutors have said the progress of the case will determine whether they lodge similar suits against six other foundations Suharto is alleged to have similarly misused.

But analysts doubted the case would bring Suharto to justice. They saw it instead as a deft political move by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who needs to be seen to be doing something after being elected on an anti-corruption platform in 2004.

“What they are after is a political effect – that they are seen as being serious about dealing with Suharto. That is all, nothing more,” said Asmara Nababan, who chairs the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights.

He said the government should have pushed on with the criminal lawsuit and held a trial with Suharto in absentia. A civil suit would also take much longer to complete, he said.

“It will not be finished in five, 10 years, and its economic effects will be negligible,” he predicted.

I Gusti Agung Putri Astrid Kartika, who chairs the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (Elsham), said she saw no point in the civil suit, given that the transactions were legal at the time they took place.

“As you know, during Suharto’s time, regulations and laws concerning private foundations were very lax,” Kartika said.

Amiruddin, an Elsham coordinator, added that the suit was “just candy for the people, just to present an image to the public of them working hard (on the Suharto case), while actually they are not.”

The case is being brought by a new attorney general appointed in May in a reshuffle seen as an attempt by Yudhoyono to reinvigorate efforts to crack down on corruption.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, director of research at the Habibie Centre think tank, said that while some big names have been punished by a very slowly reforming judiciary system, Suharto was unlikely to join them.

The success of this civil suit will “depend very much on whether the prosecutors are very serious about it,” she told a panel discussion marking 10 years since the Asian financial crisis, which precipitated Suharto’s downfall.

“What happens sometimes is that the prosecutors bring it to court but they do it in such a way that it’s thrown out of court by the judges, so they have to go back to construct it,” she said.

“Frankly I’m not holding my breath … I don’t think we’re going to see a day where Suharto is going to testify in court. His doctor will not allow it because he will be very ill on that day,” she quipped.

Suharto’s son Tommy was freed from prison last year after serving just a third of the 15-year term he was originally handed in July 2002 for ordering the murder of a Supreme Court judge.

But he has escaped trial over allegations that he corruptly amassed millions during his father’s rule.

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