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Suharto, ex-Indonesian president, is implicated in corruption probe; Longtime ruler named as suspect; investigators seek to question him


JAKARTA, Indonesia -- In what appeared to be a serious new effort to prosecute former President Suharto, the government named him yesterday as a suspect in a widening corruption investigation and summoned him for questioning Monday.

Suharto's lawyers immediately responded that he was too sick to attend. The former president is 78 and was hospitalized twice last year after a stroke. "He is physically and mentally unfit to appear for the questioning," said one of the lawyers, Juan Felix Tampubolon.

Taking a less deferential tone than past investigators, who dropped a probe of Suharto, a spokesman for the attorney general's office said illness was no excuse.

"Suharto is now named as a suspect, and we hope he'll turn up for questioning," the spokesman, Suhandoyo, told reporters. "We have also looked at the state of Suharto's health, and it seems to be improving."

The renewed move to bring Suharto to account appeared to be part of a broad policy by the new government of President Abdurrahman Wahid to address past abuses and begin building a new society based on civilian government and the rule of law.

Suharto, who was forced to resign in May 1998, is widely believed to have illegally amassed billions of dollars for himself, his children and his associates. He has denied the accusation.

Despite demands by the public for an accounting, investigations under B. J. Habibie, Suharto's friend and immediate successor, seemed half-hearted.

Suharto was treated with elaborate deference when he was called to give evidence at the attorney general's office in late 1998. His questioners were former members of his own administration.

Just before Habibie was voted out of office last October, those investigators announced they had not found enough evidence to bring charges and closed the case. That highly unpopular move was one of the last straws in Habibie's failed bid for election.

Days later, Wahid's attorney general, Marzuki Darusman, reopened the case, which involved allegations of the misuse of millions of dollars in seven charitable organizations controlled by Suharto.

"We will not tolerate any monkey business any more," Marzuki said at the time.

Softening the harshness of the idea of putting a former president on trial, Wahid later said that if Suharto were convicted, he would be pardoned if he apologized and returned any stolen funds.

Officials said yesterday that they now also wanted to question Suharto about a failed national car project, in which he bent investment rules to favor one of his sons, and about lucrative monopolies in cloves and fruits that were run by his children.

Suharto's youngest son, Hutomo Mandala Putra, was acquitted last year, during Habibie's administration, of corruption charges involving a land deal. But he and other family members and friends remain under investigation for other deals. The investigation and trial of Suharto was one of the loudest demands made by students and other demonstrators who helped end his corrupt 32-year rule.

While overturning much of Suharto's legacy with a range of reforms, Habibie appeared committed to protecting the personal welfare of his longtime mentor.

Wahid's administration is advancing on virtually every front to overhaul the government and to clear the ledger of past abuses that range from corruption to military killings.

The president is now engaged in a high-stakes standoff with Indonesia's most prominent general, Wiranto, who has refused Wahid's demand to resign as coordi- nating minister for security affairs.

The demand followed an accusation by a government commission that the general was guilty of human rights abuses in the violence that followed a vote for independence last August in the territory of East Timor.

That panel is conducting one of several investigations into abuses by the military during the years it acted as Suharto's enforcer.

Some analysts believe that Wahid is making a public example of Wiranto because he symbolizes the old order. Like Habibie, he is a protege of Suharto, having been appointed defense minister after serving for years as his personal adjutant.

On the morning Suharto resigned, Wiranto made a public pledge to protect his interests.

Wahid contrasts with Suharto in almost every way: He is voluble where Suharto was enigmatic, informal (and often barefoot) where Suharto was solemn, he welcomes public discussion and dispute, and he is committed to democratic reforms.

Suharto gave only three news conferences in 32 years. Wahid seems to have something to say every day, if not every hour.

Now he almost seems to be taunting Wiranto with new statements at every stop on a 16-day foreign tour, which will end Sunday.

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