Tommy may yet squirm through legal loopholes

His 15-year sentence is probably only the beginning of shadow play which many believe will end in a lighter rap after the dust settles.


All has not been said and done in the saga of Tommy Suharto.

The 15-year jail sentence for Hutomo ‘Tommy’ Mandala Putra, the youngest son of former president Suharto, appears to have given hope to a legal system that has been chastised in recent weeks by the United Nations and corruption watchdogs.

In a country where the courts have always been at the mercy of the rich and the powerful, the sentence was certainly a step in the right direction.

But those applauding the move need perhaps to think twice because justice is not quite so easily served in Indonesia.Political commentator Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia told The Straits Times: ‘This is not over yet because there are all kinds of loopholes available for Tommy to be released.’

He said that the Suharto scion would appeal to the Supreme Court to reverse the verdict. ‘There is a very strong chance that he will get off very lightly when it gets to that stage.’

Observers here said that there was a strong political subtext to the whole trial, which was seen as a litmus test for the administration as well as the judiciary.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri took an active interest in proceedings because of political capital that could be secured from an initial heavy sentencing.

Offering the billionaire tycoon as a ‘sacrificial lamb’ will score her some points with legislators when she faces them during next week’s session of the national assembly.

But there was no guarantee that she would stick to her stance after the meeting.

Parliamentary sources said that a deal might well have been struck with the Suharto family to secure Tommy’s release or to get him a much lighter sentence after all the excitement of the initial verdict has died down.

A senior member of the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) said: ‘I don’t think Megawati will take the risk of making the sentence stick because she knows that Suharto continues to wield influence in Indonesia.’ He said he thought a compromise would be reached ‘at the end of the day’.

This will do little to redeem the credibility of the judiciary, especially after the stinging attack by the United Nations and the Indonesian Corruption Watch body saying courts in the country are inept and corrupt.

Noted analyst Rizal Malarangeng commented: ‘The Indonesian legal system took baby steps to throw behind bars someone that a year ago would have been unthinkable.

‘But the real test now is to see whether it can sustain the momentum and make sure that justice is seen to be done.’

The track record of the legal system over the years has cast doubts on whether the judiciary is prepared to deal with the powerful on equal terms.

Mr Arbi said: ‘They suffer a great deal of insecurity when it comes to handling cases which involve high-profile individuals like Tommy Suharto.’

He said there was always a lot of wayang – the Indonesian term for shadow play.

It is a pattern that is repeating itself in other high-profile cases.

Parliamentary Speaker Akbar Tandjung’s trial for corruption, for example.

Prosecutors and judges failed to raise crucial questions about who cashed into the 40 billion rupiah (S$7.7 million) belonging to the State Logistics Agency.

And to top it all, they sought only a four-year jail term for the Golkar chairman.

That case, and possibly the Tommy Suharto trial, drive home the point that the Indonesian legal system is still less than transparent; that shady backroom dealings make it unlikely ever to deliver the kind of justice sufficient to punish those people who abuse power.

The UN and the ICW might have come up with hard-hitting reports about the system. The government and the courts appear to be playing to the gallery.

Baby steps were taken yesterday but the jury is still out on Tommy Suharto – not to mention Indonesia’s legal system.

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