A Suharto Scion's Brazen Ploy

In 2002, Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, the son of the late strongman Suharto, was sentenced to 15 years in jail after having been convicted of ordering the murder of Syafiuddin Kartasasmita, the judge who had sentenced him to 18 months jail for corruption and illegal weapons possession.

Now the 48-year old convicted murderer, known widely as Tommy Suharto, is suing Garuda Indonesia, the state-owned flag carrier, and the publishers of its in-flight magazine for referring to him as a convicted murderer. A civil hearing commenced on Sept. 7 in the South Jakarta District Court, one of many in Indonesia that are notorious for their ability to deliver judgments having little to do with the facts of the cases before them. Tommy is seeking an apology from Garuda.

While the story might seem like one of those freak items that appear at the bottom of columns of print as fillers in newspapers, it speaks volumes about Indonesia's court system and questions about impunity in a country that is struggling with concerns whether reformasi, the effort to clean up the Augean stables that Suharto left behind, can succeed.

"This is an outrage, of course," said a Jakarta-based press representative. "The reality is that with the rule of law weak in this country, it is frightening to have someone like Tommy Suharto come after you. There is no protection and he is still powerful."

The allegedly offending article, "A New Destination to Enjoy in Bali" published in the December, 2009 issue of the in-flight magazine, reviews Tommy's Pecatu Indah Resort and refers to the owner as a "convicted murderer." The magazine has already removed all reference to Tommy from the online version of the story.

In 2002, a five-judge panel ruled that Tommy was guilty of arranging Syafiuddin's murder, fleeing from justice for a year and possessing illegal rifles, handguns, grenades and explosives. The panel found that he had paid US$11,000 to two gunmen to kill Syafiuddin and loaned them one of his personal weapons to use in the attack. The two gunmen were convicted earlier.

Tommy was given 15 years in prison for the murder of Syafiuddin but ended up serving only four in a luxurious, air-conditioned cell. After being freed, he reassumed control of much of his vast corporate interests in Indonesia, including resort operations in Bali.

Tommy is one of five astonishingly corrupt children spawned by the late strongman. In 1999, Time Magazine estimated that the family was worth as much as US$15 billion in a vast network of shares, real estate, corporate assets and other loot. Transparency International estimated that the family had misappropriated anywhere between US$15 billion and US$32 billion during the 32 years of Suharto's presidency. The children in effect placed cash registers on many of the imports coming into the country through monopolies, draining off billions of dollars.

Tommy was perhaps the most notorious of the five, establishing the Humpuss Group of companies which took a monopoly over the lucrative domestic trade in cloves, used in the ubiquitous kretek cigarettes. Immediately after Suharto's fall, the family supposedly went into eclipse. But none have been very far from the surface. In June and July, Suharto's eldest daughter, Siti "Tutut" Hardiyanti Rukmana, sought to take control of the television entity PT Televisi Pendidikan Indonesia, or TPI. Tutut especially has emerged as a behind-the-scenes power broker in Indonesian politics.

Listed as defendants in the libel suit are Garuda Indonesia, senior staff members Pujobroto, vice president corporate communications, and senior marketing and promotion staff member Prasetyo Budi, as well as PT Indo Multi Media as the publisher of the magazine and two staff members.

Tommy's lawyer. Ferry Firman, told journalists that the reference to his client had no relevance to the article. "[The article] is not a press product, not a journalistic work. They are not listed with the Press Council," Firman said.

Just for the record, Hutomo Mandala Putri aka Tommy Suharto is a convicted murderer.