Getting Out of Jail Free
The conditional release of former dictator Suharto’s youngest son, 44-year-old Hutomo ‘Tommy’ Mandala Putra, after serving only five years for ordering the murder of the Supreme Court judge who convicted him of corruption, is a serious blow to those seeking to reform Indonesia’s legal system and an unfortunate signal to international investors of how far the country has to go to rid itself of its graft-ridden past.
“The problem is that this country has a president but does not have a leader in law enforcement,” said Johnson Pandjaitan, a leading human rights lawyer from the Indonesian Human Rights and Legal Aid Association, a reference to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was swept to power in 2004 on a so-far unfulfilled pledge to unravel Indonesia's endemic institutionalised corruption.
Both the case of Tommy, known more familiarly as Tommy Suharto, and the murder of the country’s leading human rights activist who was poisoned aboard a Garuda Airlines flight on his way to Amsterdam more than a year ago, demonstrate the depressing web of political loyalties that seem to strangle virtually every case involving top political figures. That includes a justice minister accused of embezzlement, a judge accused of bribes from Suharto’s stepbrother and a plethora of other judges who reversed convictions on what appear to be the thinnest of excuses.
Human rights groups are demanding that Jakarta resolve the arsenic poisoning of Munir Thalib, who died after eating on food from a galley tray on Garuda. It is widely believed that his attacks on military impunity and state human rights abuses were getting too close to home.
In the final months of Suharto's reign, Munir, who was staunchly critical of the Indonesian military (TNI), took up the cause of dozens of activists who had disappeared in suspicious circumstances. He co-founded Kontras, the Commission for the Disappeared and the Victims of Violence, and later became a director of the human-rights group Imparsial.
The Munir mystery had a body, evidence of poisoning, and motives galore. Off-duty pilot Polycarpus Priyanto was convicted of poisoning him but reformers believe it was done at the behest of top military officials. A year to the day after the conviction, the Indonesian Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the basis that “No witnesses saw him plot the murder,” according to the Presiding Justice, Iskandar Kamil. Priyanto was the only suspect implicated in the case.
"When it comes to the big boys, the law looks weak and helpless," says prominent lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, chairman of the Indonesian chapter of Transparency International.
Tommy Suharto’s case is equally demoralizing to reformers. Activists view Tommy’s release as a sign that the former first family retains considerable influence and that the rich and powerful remain very much beyond the reach of the law.
Hamid Awaluddin, the Justice and Human Rights Minister, who is still reeling from accusations that he was involved in embezzlement of funds from the 2004 national elections, said earlier that Tommy's freedom would not be automatically granted and that he would take "public opinion" into consideration, an irony because Tommy’s habit of flaunting his wealth and privilege angered most Indonesians.
He drove fancy cars, chased women, and jetted around the globe; until his marriage in 1997 he dated a string of starlets and beauty queens and represented the worst excesses of the decades prior to his father’s ouster. During the elder Suharto's reign, billions of dollars in public funds and contributions from businesses were diverted into trusts controlled by the family. Transparency International estimates the family wealth was $35 billion. Tommy’s share: around $800 million.
A favorite among the dictator's six children, Tommy was given control of the country's lucrative clove cigarette trade and permission to import and sell vehicles tax-free at a time when other dealers faced massive tariffs. He became one of the country's most powerful tycoons, running a conglomerate that spawned dozens of companies.
No serious attempts have been made to recover the Suharto funds and the Yudhoyono administration has been strongly criticized for failing to proceed with a corruption trial against the former president on the grounds he is medically unfit to face court.
The law finally caught up with Tommy in 1999 after Suharto fell from power in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In a short burst of accountability, Tommy was tried on charges of defrauding the state of US$10.7 million by swapping a tract of swampy land for a prime site belonging to the National Logistics Agency (Bulog) to build a hypermarket.
The court, however, decided no crime had been committed. But in September 2000, Judge Syaifudin Kartasasmita headed a Supreme Court panel that reversed the lower court ruling and sentenced Tommy to 18 months in jail for causing Rp76.7 billion in losses to the state.
The judge, according to his wife's later testimony, turned down a $20,000 bribe from Tommy and ignored his threats of violence. Tommy applied for a presidential pardon, forcing a stay of his sentence. President Abdurrahman Wahid refused and in November 2000 Tommy went on the lam for a year, becoming Indonesia's most wanted fugitive.
Then, in 2001, in a scene reminiscent of a gangster movie, the 61 year old Justice Kartasasmita, who had handled top criminal cases and was renowned for refusing bribes, was gunned down in broad daylight during Jakarta's morning rush hour as he was driving to the Supreme Court. Tommy ultimately was brought to trial, where he received a 15-year sentence for Kartasasmita’s killing.
The Indonesian courts, however, continued to let Tommy slide. In June last year the Supreme Court reduced his 15-year sentence to 10 years on appeal. The panel of five judges responsible for the ruling was led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Bagir Manan, who said the charge of fleeing justice should not have carried any penalty.
Bagir had earlier presided over the controversial acquittal of former House of Representatives speaker Akbar Tanjung in a graft case, and was also accused of taking bribes from Suharto's stepbrother Probosutedjo.
The decision was widely criticized and prompted speculation the judges had either been given bribes or received similar death threats. Manan took over hearing the review of the case only after three other Supreme Court judges withdrew amid claims that they had received massive bribes to rule in favor of Tommy.
Conspiracy theories abounded, with the most persistent being that the assassination of Kartasasmita had been engineered by military elements. Thus, the theorists suggested, Tommy was being made a scapegoat and the masterminds were high-placed generals who were warning judges away from bringing them to account over past human-rights violations and also the East Timor scorched-earth policy.
Syafiuddin had been working on this very issue and, at the time of his death and headed the committee that was setting up the special human-rights court to try those accused of orchestrating the orgy of arson and murder that took place ahead of and after East Timor's vote to secede from Indonesia.