Fri, 30 Nov 2001

Police (always) too late for a show

Emmy Fitri, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The police basked in praise on Thursday after the one-year long extensive, but until recently fruitless, search for the nation's top fugitive Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra.

Wednesday's orchestrated show started when police escorted an unhandcuffed, smiling and waving Tommy to meet journalists at Jakarta Police headquarters. He looked healthy and fatter after having eluded serving the 18-month sentence he had been handed following his conviction in a graft case last December.

His first appearance in public since last year was repeatedly broadcast nationwide all evening.

The show, however, could have been staged a long time ago had law enforcers not treated Tommy as the son of a former president, a privileged super-rich and powerful businessman, rather than as a common criminal.

Ex-fugitive Tommy is now the prime suspect in the murder of Supreme Court Judge M. Syafiuddin Kartasasmita, who was one of the judges who convicted him on Dec. 3, 2000, as well as being a suspect in illegal possession of firearms and explosives, and several bombing cases in the capital. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Why did the arrest occur only one day after newly-installed National Police chief Gen. Da'i Bachtiar appeared before the House of Representatives, which had approved his bid for the top police job?

"This is purely the result of our men's work," Da'i's predecessor Gen. Surojo Bimantoro said, describing the arrest was a great gift to mark the end of his tenure as police chief.

Yet, the public remained skeptical as the prolonged delay in tracking down Tommy and the performance given in police headquarters to mark his arrest have sparked speculation that the police were not serious all along in carrying out their duty, or that his rich family and powerful friends had been harboring him.

"It really looks as if it is a scenario, an engineered arrest and a farce," said the chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association Hendardi, as quoted by AFP.

It was ironic to see a number of legislators flocking to Jakarta police headquarters to congratulate the city police chief, Insp. Gen. Sofjan Jacoeb, on the arrest, while dozens of people staged a joyful rally to present him with flowers.

Why? The police could have easily locked up Tommy and virtually thrown away the key shortly after his arrest was ordered by prosecutors. No wonder that when such action was not immediately taken by the police, Tommy, the favorite son of former dictator Soeharto and a wealthy businessman, had no difficulty in escaping the clutches of the law.

"He (Tommy) was here this morning but he went out in the afternoon. I don't know where," a security guard at Tommy's residence told reporters on Nov. 3 last year, as police and prosecutors desperately waited for him to appear so they could serve him with the court's verdict convicting him and ordering him to jail.

A massive search for the fugitive was then launched, including the questioning of his siblings and associates. The houses of Tommy's family members were raided. The most astonishing police find was a bunker underneath his house on Jalan Cendana, Central Jakarta.

After months of fruitless searching, Sofjan offered between Rp 500 million and Rp 1 billion as a reward for anyone who managed to capture Tommy. At the same time, the police also widely distributed likenesses of the fugitive in which he looked totally different from how he looks now -- beardless and without his trademark moustache.

In no way embarrassed by previous failures, before an abruptly summoned press conference several months ago, Sofjan announced that his men had raided a house in the upmarket Pondok Indah area, where Tommy had been hiding for a couple of months. During the raid, the police confiscated explosives, a large sum of U.S. dollars and firearms.

Sofjan then warned Tommy to give himself up within three days or face the consequences. Obviously unimpressed, the redoubtable Tommy remained at large.

As a result of the original police bungling, the city police chief in the end had to deploy 30 of his best detectives, spend almost Rp 2 billion and borrow sophisticated communications equipment from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation before they could capture Tommy

Once bitten, twice shy, so they say. The police apparently do not want to be caught out again and set to work with zeal in seeking new evidence at the luxury hideout in southern Jakarta, where Tommy was captured on Wednesday. However, police investigators returned to headquarters on Thursday empty-handed. No supporting evidence was found.

Noted criminologist Adrianus Meliala said that what was important now was for the police to seek additional evidence to support the allegations of involvement in murder and bombings.

The public must now impatiently wait and see what action is taken on foot of these allegations.