JAKARTA — The youngest son of former Indonesian President Suharto went to trial for murder Wednesday. The case is probably the most important test yet of the credibility of Indonesia’s legal system. Hutomo Mandala Putra, better known as Tommy, stands accused of masterminding the murder of a Supreme Court justice. If found guilty the notorious playboy could be sentenced to death.

Few believe he will be.

The trial against Tommy, 40, is expected to last for three or four months. During this time the Indonesians will get what they love most. Extensive media coverage of what is widely seen as a soap opera.

Indonesia is addicted to Tommy. The people love him, because they can hate him. He stands for everything that was corrupt during his father’s 30-year presidency.

Shortly before Suharto lost power in 1998, while Indonesia was falling into the abyss of the Asian monetary crisis, Tommy appeared in a blue Rolls-Royce for a press conference where he explained how good his father had been for the country.

$800 million fortune

It took little time for Indonesia to find out exactly how well the dictator had treated his children. After extensive research Time Magazine estimated the total wealth of the Suhartos at $45 billion. Tommy had amassed a fortune of some $800 million.

Internationally, Tommy became well known in 1993 for his acquisition of the Italian race-car manufacturer Lamborghini for $40 million.

By that time he, as well as his siblings, had already well established himself in Indonesian business. Under the wings of his father the president, Tommy set up a conglomerate called Humpuss. It had stakes in over 90 companies in sectors ranging from oil to gas, shipping and airlines. Suharto made sure his beloved son won the monopoly over the trade in cloves, the ingredient for the locally popular clove cigarettes.

While Suharto was running the country as a family business, Tommy was given the concession to produce a highly subsidized “national car,” the “Timor.” Never mind that the car was in fact imported from South Korea and provided with a local sticker. The car did not sell well.

When the government wanted to provide another $1 billion in subsidies to the car project, the International Monetary Fund stepped in. The country was facing the Asian monetary crisis and could not afford to fund any pet projects of the first family.

After Suharto’s fall from grace, Tommy shied away from public attention. Many analysts blamed the behavior of Suharto’s six children for the downturn of the New Order regime. According to several former ministers, Suharto could simply not reject any of his children wishes. The children were his weak spot, and Tommy was to be the most damaging.

Tommy was convicted of fraud in September last year, the first of the Suharto family to face charges. The judge sentenced him to 18 months in prison because of an illegal 1995 land transaction. After then President Abdurrahman Wahid rejected his plea for clemency after two secret and suspicious meetings in a Jakarta hotel, Tommy went into hiding.

The police, whose investigations were generally believed to be mere pretense, were not able to find him for a year. In the meantime accusations against the lost son were mounting.

Terror and mayhem

Tommy was said to be responsible for some of the bombings in Jakarta in 2000. He supposedly had links with freedom fighters in Aceh, the northern province of Sumatra, and also had a hand in the bloody conflict in the province of the Maluku.

Even worse, in July the judge who sentenced him for graft, Syafiuddin Kartasasmita, was assassinated in broad daylight. The irony was, Tommy’s earlier verdict for graft was annulled a few months after the judge was killed.

But then he became the main suspect for the murder. Late November, just when most people had given up hope, the police suddenly arrested the favorite son of the ailing former president in the middle of a residential area of Jakarta.

Since the arrest, conspiracy theories have been rife in Indonesia. Some analysts say his arrest followed a secret deal of which the result will be known within the next few months. For many, it is unthinkable that the son of the former president would not be able to buy his way out of this mess.

They see proof for their suspicions in a remarkably weak case presented by the prosecutors. The report on the investigations was sent back and forth between police and prosecutors during the last few months. Still they have not been able to establish a motive for the murder case. In the meantime the two actual assassins have retracted their statements that Tommy had given the order to shoot the judge.

Others view Tommy as a scapegoat. Judge Kartasasmita had many enemies, some of whom within the powerful military establishment. Suharto’s son might not even be responsible for the killing but it has been decided that the millionaire playboy needs to be sacrificed.

Merely politics?

According to this theory the current government supposedly wants him to be sentenced in order to live up to its pledge to deal with corruption. It is merely politics. Tommy’s defense team has already expressed concern that its client would not get a fair trial because of widespread demands to punish anyone associated with the disgraced Suharto regime. The local media already seem to have convicted him.

But some are less cynical. Optimists see a pattern in recent developments, which indicates that the fight against graft has finally begun.

Tommy’s trial coincides with other remarkable legal moves against powerful figures in the last few weeks. Akbar Tandjung, parliamentary speaker and chairman of the Golkar Party, the political vehicle of former President Suharto, was arrested last week for embezzling 40 billion rupiah ($4.4 million).

The former minister for industry and trade, Rahardi Ramelan, was nabbed over the same case. And after years of legal wrangling, Syahril Sabirin, the governor of the central bank, often derided as a den of thieves, got a three-year prison sentence for his role in diverting money into a political slush fund.

New hope is in the air in Indonesia. One thing is clear. Apart from Tommy Suharto, it is the notoriously corrupt judiciary that is standing trial these coming months.

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