Fri, 29 Sep 2000

A damaging ruling

The South Jakarta District Court's decision to dismiss the corruption charges against former president Soeharto on the grounds that he is too ill to stand trial will have much wider repercussions that go beyond the US$590 million case brought by the state prosecutors. The ruling has not only effectively closed the door on all legal avenues to try the former tyrant for his past actions, but it could also destroy President Abdurrahman Wahid's antigraft campaign.

The court decision, ultimately, undermines the credibility of President Abdurrahman who was elected in October on promises of returning the rule of law and upholding good governance and clean government. With his popularity at a very low ebb, the court decision cannot bode well for the already shaky public confidence in his ability to govern.

The government's corruption case against Soeharto has been wrought with controversy from the start. The case brought to court was weak to begin with. Many people felt that even if Soeharto was convicted, it would have had little significance as far as revealing the truth and upholding justice in this country are concerned -- the main objectives of any court hearing.

In the case brought before the court, Soeharto was being tried not in his capacity as former president of the republic but as chairman of seven charitable organizations. The sum involved is not the billions of dollars he and his family were supposed to have amassed using or abusing his position as the most powerful man in the country for 32 years, but a paltry $590 million of state funds which he has been accused of funneling to companies owned by his foundations.

From the moment Attorney General Marzuki Darusman reopened the Soeharto files in December, the government was constantly being outwitted by Soeharto and his lawyers. The investigation dragged on as the lawyers contested the government every step of the way on the way to court. Even when the case was eventually tried in three hearings, including the one on Thursday, Soeharto never once set foot in the courtroom. His ailing health, a tool which the lawyers used effectively to slow down the legal process, was the decisive factor in the judges' decision to dismiss the case.

The grounds for dismissal -- that he is permanently unfit to stand trial -- has effectively ruled out future investigations or trials against Soeharto for other far more serious crimes, particularly human right abuses which his regime allegedly perpetrated. If the chief goal of these legal exercises is to seek the truth and uphold justice, and not exact retribution, the South Jakarta District Court judges have now killed those hopes for good. The nation will never learn the truth about many of the still unexplained events when they were ruled by Soeharto.

The court ruling to dismiss Soeharto's case will also make it difficult, if not impossible, for the government to prosecute other corruptors who benefited while he ruled the country. His cronies and children have always been shielded by his power when confronted with the question of how they secured lucrative business contracts and trade privileges. Their popular legal defense has been to say that those business practices were perfectly legitimate by the standards of the time. If anyone was at fault, they claim now, it should be Soeharto or members of the administrations who made and supervised the rules. Now that he cannot be tried, these corruptors must feel relieved that they are off the hook.

President Abdurrahman has made a Soeharto trial the cornerstone of his much-publicized antigraft campaign. He has even promised -- prematurely as it now turns out -- that he would pardon Soeharto the moment he is convicted by the court. To the President, a Soeharto trial and court conviction would be symbolic of the return of the rule of law in Indonesia and that corruptors -- past, present and future -- cannot expect impunity the way they had become accustomed to under Soeharto.

We leave it to medical and legal experts to decide whether the South Jakarta District Court was right to dismiss the corruption case against Soeharto. But rightly or wrongly, the decision has caused untold irreparable damage to the nation's quest for truth and justice, to the nation's struggle to wipe out corruption, and most of all, to the credibility and public standing of the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid.