Tommy Suharto’s Brazen Libel Verdict

You can get away with it but only in Indonesia and when you’re Suharto’s son

Indonesia’s court system, ranked one of the most corrupt in Asia, has awarded the convicted murderer son of the late strongman Suharto Rp12.5 billion (USUS$1.46 million) from a magazine that called him a convicted murderer.

In December 2009, the in-flight magazine of the national flag carrier Garuda, in a review of a resort owned Hutomo Mandala Putra, also known as Tommy Suharto, called him a convicted murderer, which Presiding Judge Tahsin of the South Jakarta District Court said had ruined Tommy’s reputation “as a national and international businessman.”  The magazine was also ordered to carry a full-page apology for three issues running.

Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, a Hong Kong-based risk analysis firm, ranks the Indonesian court system at the bottom of 18 countries in Asia. Transparency International scored Indonesia slightly better, ahead of Vietnam, the Philippines and Burma. The decision awarding the judgment to Tommy Suharto makes it clear why the ranking is so low.

Tommy was convicted in July 2002 of ordering the assassination of Supreme Court Justice Syafiuddin Kartasasmita.  Kartasamita had sentenced Tommy to jail over his role in a land scam involving the state-run National Logistics Agency Bulog.  Tommy was acquitted of the Bulog charge in October 1999 but Kartasamita overturned the decision in September 2000 and sentenced him to 18 months in jail. According to Kartasamita's wife, Tommy had attempted to bribe the judge prior to the decision.

The judge was shot dead by gunmen on a motorcycle. Police investigations revealed that the gunmen were hired by Tommy at a fee of Rp100 million (USUS$10,800). The gunmen said they had handed the weapons back to Tommy after the shooting. Tommy was jailed for 15 years but freed after just five.

Press freedom organizations erupted in indignation over Tahsin’s ruling. *

Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific head Benjamin Ismail said his organization "strongly condemns the decision of the South Jakarta District Court Court to sentence Garuda Magazine for defamation. Such a disproportionate sanction is a serious setback for freedom of expression, reversing gains made since the fall of the Suharto régime and an unfortunate development for the broader evolution of democratic values in Indonesia. Even though, the judge refused the demand for an apology to be printed in three national newspapers, a Rp12.5 billion fine marks a clear intention to dismantle permanently the magazine. It is totally unnacceptable, criminal defamation proceedings must strop. We call on the Supreme Court of Indonesia to overhaul this sentence, as it did for Tempo editor Bambang Harymurti. Indonesia's justice system credibility is at stake.

“The court decision against Garuda Magazine raises troubling questions about the Indonesian judiciary's independence and legal commitment to uphold press freedom," said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative to the Committee to Protect Journalists in an email response. "The decision and its implications for media freedom represent a significant step backwards for the recent democratic progress seen in Indonesia."  

 

Tommy, Crispin said, “is clearly and indisputably a convicted murderer, as the contested Garuda Magazine article stated. By imposing punitive fines against the magazine for merely stating that fact, this decision will have a chilling effect on all media when reporting on influential Indonesian politicians and businesspeople."   

The libel defendants were the airline, the magazine, its chief editor Taufik Darusman, Garuda corporate communications vice president Pujobroto and editors Sari Widiati and Prasetyo Budi, who is also a Garuda marketing manager.
“Although the Supreme Court has convicted Hutomo Mandala Putera in the murder case, he has served his sentence and since the completion of the [term] he has fully regained his rights as a citizen and for his past to not be mentioned,” the judge said. However, the judge refused a demand that an apology be printed in three national newspapers.
Agus Sudibyo, a member of Press Council, was reluctant to comment on whether the ruling was a blow to press freedom but agreed that calling Tommy a killer was irrelevant to the article.
The judge’s reasoning that Tommy had a reputation as a national and international businessman is a bit hard to follow. The International Centre for Asset Recovery (ICAR) at the Basel Institute on Governance in Basel, Switzerland, prints this chronology of events surrounding Tommy on its website:

Up to 1998: Tommy and other members of the Suharto family acquired billions of dollars in legal and illegal business deals involving the agriculture, manufacturing, mining and transport sectors. Their businesses interests were carried out both within and outside Indonesia. Among others, Tommy acquired a majority shareholding in the Italian luxury car manufacturer  Lamborghini at a cost value of USUS$40 million, and later a franchise for Indonesia’s national car. Tommy's wealth also included a 75 percent stake in an 18-hole golf course with 22 luxury apartments in England, a USUS$4 million hunting ranch in New Zealand and a half share in a US$4 million yacht moored in Australia.

1998: Suharto stepped down as president amid an economic crisis and rising discontent.

1998: The Guernsey branch of the BNP Paribas bank notified the regulators that it suspected illegal behaviour associated with a deposit from Garnet Investments Limited, a company owned by Tommy, but registered in the Virgin Islands. The authorities in Guernsey blocked the payments from the account.

1999:  Jakarta District Court acquit Tommy of corruption charge involving the manipulation of

1999:  Jakarta District Court acquit Tommy of corruption charge involving the manipulation of Rp 95.4 billion in Bulog land scam deal.

2000, September: Tommy was arrested in connection with a bomb explosion at the Jakarta stock exchange.

2000, September: Tommy convicted of illegally receiving property from the state logistics agency in exchange for the construction of a shopping mall. 2

2001, November: Tommy was investigated and arrested in connection with the  assassination of Supreme Court Judge Syafiuddin Kartasasmita.  Judge Syafiuddin Kartasasmita had sentenced Tommy to 18 months in jail in relation to an USUS$11 million land scam for which he had previously been acquitted. 3

2002, July: Tommy found guilty on charges of murder, weapons possession and evading justice. The murder charged was in connection with the assassination of the supreme court judge Syafiuddin Kartasasmita who had previously convicted Tommy. The judge was shot dead by gunmen on a motorcycle. Police investigations revealed that the gunmen were hired by Tommy at a fee of 100 million rupiah (USUS$10,800). The gunmen handed the weapons back to Tommy after the shooting. 4 Tommy was jailed for 15 years.

2004, November: Tommy's sentence was reduced to 10 years on appeal.

2006, October: Tommy was conditionally released from jail after serving a third of the sentence for plotting the murder of a Supreme Court judge. 5 One of the conditions of his release was a  ban on travelling abroad for 1 year.

2007, January: Garnet Investment, a company owned by Tommy sued a branch of French bank BNP Paribas for blocking release of at least €36 million (USUS$46.7 million) deposited in the bank. Indonesia opened investigations on whether the millions of dollars in the bank account were obtained legally.

2007, April: Investigations into the 2005 transfer of approximately USUS$10 million from Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) Paribas in London.

2007, July: Tommy was named suspect in a graft case involving clove monopoly worth Rp 175 billion, and the misuse of government  subsidies for personal enrichment.

2007, November: Tommy sued for allegedly defrauding the state in a land exchange deal in the mid-1990s, which led to loses of up to Rp500 billion. He was further accused of manipulation of the Rp 95.4 billion land scam by trading swampland to the government agency, BULOG, in exchange for prime land for commercial development.

2008, May: Tommy was sued again on charges related to illegal sale of the automotive company, PT Timor Putra National (TPN), which it is alleged to have caused the state US$400 million. The sale was considered illegal as it violated the 2000 decision of the Policy Committee for Financial Sector and the Indonesian Banking Restructuring Agency (BPPN) forbidding sale of assets to parties with similar financial interests. 7

2008, February: Court rejected a civil case against Tommy for alleged corruption  and awarded him US$550,000 in a countersuit.

2009, February: Judges in Jakarta ruled that Tommy was not guilty of stealing US$400m (£275m) of state loans over his failed national car project, while a case related to a lucrative clove monopoly was also shelved in 2008.

2009, February: Tommy cleared in the BNP Paribas Bank case. Indonesia lost the case (The  judgment delivered), the account was unfrozen, and Tommy  recovered control of the funds.

Correction:  A previous version of this story had the Jakarta Globe removing the words "convicted murderer" from postings by readers.  That did not happen.  Asia Sentinel regrets the error.

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