Thu, 23 Nov 2000

Comedy of errors

Three weeks after the dramatic disappearance of Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, former president Soeharto's youngest son who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for corruption, the hope that police will be able to track him down any time soon and that the principle of equality before the law will be upheld appears to be dimming rather than increasing by the day.

Indeed, as the time continues to fly by and the police, to all appearances, go all out to find the fugitive billionaire felon, the case appears to be gradually assuming all the characteristics of a good comedy, rather than a drama or mystery.

One could, of course, question the use at this point of noting that all of this could have been avoided had the authorities treated Tommy from the beginning not as a privileged super-rich and powerful business tycoon, but rather as an ordinary citizen who had been found guilty of a crime and sentenced accordingly by a court of justice.

It must nevertheless be remembered that the longer the case is left dangling with no hope of a solution in sight, the more the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid stands to lose its already tattered credibility and the more the nation is faced with the bleak prospect of having to live with a never-ending crisis.

As may be recalled, Tommy was formally pronounced a suspect by the South Jakarta District Court on Feb. 2, 1999, together with Beddu Amang, the former head of the State Logistics Agency (Bulog), and businessman Ricardo Gelael, and the case opened two days later.

Beddu Amang was acquitted on a technicality and his case has not been heard of since. Tommy and Ricardo were also exonerated for lack of evidence, but the prosecutor, Fachmi, appealed and a Supreme Court panel chaired by M. Syafiuddin Kartasasmita reversed the decision.

Ricardo filed for a presidential pardon, which was however refused. He accepted the decision as calmly as can be expected from a man finding himself in such a situation. Tommy, however, proved to be a much harder nut to crack.

Not content with just filing a plea for a pardon with the President, Tommy at the same time appealed for a judicial review of his case. Both petitions were rejected and so, one might at least expect, the way was open for the judicial authorities to arrest him -- irrespective, of course, of his position in the community.

Instead, the public has been a witness to a series of events that would have been comically absurd, were it not for the implications that are involved.

Tommy arranged to meet President Abdurrahman Wahid at the Borobudur Hotel in Jakarta -- in private, if not in secret. Whether media reports that more meetings took place subsequently are true is something that must await official confirmation. Even so, any delay in confirming or denying such reports will only serve to damage the President's credibility even more.

Given the way the public's mind works, such mysterious doings can only further feed the public's suspicion that something fishy is going on and that some kind of secret deal is probably being hammered out for Tommy's benefit. How else can one explain the odd fact that the state's intelligence apparatus -- always so quick in the past to uncover plots and arrest dissidents -- has been proven helpless in tracking down a mere Tommy Soeharto?

In the meantime, the police have been making a big show of questioning Tommy's family and combing the city to find the fugitive. Having apparently failed to find Tommy in the homes of the "Cendana (Soeharto's) Family", police are widening the scope of their hunt to include the homes of his ex-girlfriend, former actress Maya Rumantir, and even that of his in-laws.

What the authorities will come up with next is anybody's guess. Our own guess is that the public will have to endure some more of the same for at least a few more days until one of the two sides in the current game of cat and mouse gives up. In the meantime, it is the public which must pay the price for the police's bungling performance in this affair.