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Suharto's absence imposes obstacle to corruption trial


JAKARTA, Indonesia - By calling in sick on the first day of his corruption trial, Indonesia's former leader, Suharto, has put up another hurdle to this country's tortuous effort to come to terms with its past.

Government prosecutors said yesterday that they would procede with their case against Suharto on charges that he siphoned about $590 million in state funds through several charitable foundations under his control when he was president.

But with the trial adjourned until Sept. 14 - and then only to hear testimony from doctors who declared Suharto unfit to attend the opening session yesterday - it is far from clear that the 79-year-old former president will ever stand in the dock.

"Suharto will never be convicted," said A. M. Fatwa, a member of parliament, as he stalked angrily out of the courtroom. "This is only a game, a conspiracy between the politicians and lawyers."

Still, for a hushed moment after the judge asked whether the defendant was present, there was palpable drama in the courtroom. To hear Suharto's name read out in a criminal case was a momentous event in a country where for three decades he was synonymous with untold wealth and unassailable power.

When the judge's question was met with silence, the 300 spectators booed half-heartedly, like people who had hoped for more but did not expect to get it.

Given the judgment of Suharto's doctors, it is not clear that the government can compel him to attend. Attorney General Marsuki Darusman says the former president cannot be tried in absentia, so the two sides are in a standoff.

For now, the prosecutors have asked for an independent panel of doctors to examine Suharto. His own doctors say he suffers from a number of ailments, including heart trouble, hypertension, and diabetes.

They say that Suharto, who has had three strokes, has lost his memory and ability to speak.

Suharto may be unable to mount a defense, but he has mobilized an army of lawyers and doctors to do it for him. Twenty-three doctors gathered yesterday morning to examine Suharto at his house here. Later, more than 100 police officers took up positions to protect the house from demonstrators.

Although Indonesia is awash in trials and investigations these days, protestors have channeled their passions into the Suharto case. People view the trial as the litmus test of the government's campaign to cleanse Indonesia - not just of corruption, but of its legacy of human rights abuses.

"You have to find this man culpable, or you won't be able to find all his cronies culpable," said H. S. Dillon, a member of Indonesia's Human Rights Commission. "They will just say, 'We were acting on orders.'" Dillon said that Indonesia had made paltry progress so far.

While Indonesia's president, Abdurrahman Wahid, authorized the investigation of Suharto, he, too, has been implicated in two Parliamentary investigations of misappropriated funds that seem an echo of the Suharto era.

There may more disappointment to come. Today, Darusman is expected to disclose the names of officials who will be prosecuted for human rights abuses in East Timor, during the rampage that erupted after last summer's referendum on independence for the former Indonesian province.

According to people who have seen the list, it does not include two ranking military officers, retired Gen. Wiranto, who was defense minister during that period, and the retired chief of military intelligence, Gen. Zaki Anwar.

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