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Indonesia Courts Rules US Mining Firm Not Guilty in Pollution Trial

An Indonesian court cleared one of the world's largest gold mining producers, Newmont Mining Corporation and its American head, Richard Ness, of charges it polluted a bay on Indonesia's Sulawesi island, causing villagers to become sick and destroying marine life. As VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins reports from Jakarta, the trial has been closely watched by environmentalists and foreign investors.

An Indonesian court on Tuesday found the U.S. mining giant Newmont Mining Corp and the head of its Indonesian subsidiary, American Richard Ness, not guilty of dumping arsenic and mercury into a bay near its now defunct gold mine.

The head of the panel of judges trying the case, Ridwan Damanik, said the police evidence of samples they had taken showing mercury and arsenic levels in Buyat Bay well beyond national standards did not hold up in court.

Tests on the same waters taken by the World Health Organization, Indonesian government agencies, and other independent groups found the condition of the waters in the area well within normal limits.

Richard Ness, who was required to attend all 53 hearings during the 20-month trial, told VOA the verdict shows the case should never have gone to trial.

"We were exonerated and I'm thrilled by it… the one thing that this verdict has shown was it wasn't just about pollution, a big percentage of the written and the arguments that were delivered by the panel of judges was this case should not have been in court," he said. "It was more than just Newmont not guilty, but it also said rules were not followed, these principles should apply, this case should not have been in court."

Indonesia actively seeks much needed foreign investment. But wary investors, already concerned about the overloaded bureaucracy, corruption, and uneven judicial system, have been keeping a close watch on the Newmont trial.

In a statement the U.S. embassy in Indonesia said "the positive resolution" of the Newmont case "will undoubtedly have a beneficial effect on Indonesian and foreign investor confidence."

Investors may welcome the verdict but environmentalists see it as a sign Indonesia is not serious about protecting its rapidly deteriorating environment.

Torry Kuswardono, campaign officer for the Indonesian environmentalist group WALHI, says the verdict shows big corporations do not have to follow environmental laws.

"This is, I think, another loss for the government. It's the proof that our system is already conquered by the corporations… this is actually the signs that Indonesia is opening the gates further for environmental destruction in Indonesia," said Torry.

The prosecutors have two weeks to lodge an appeal to Indonesia's Supreme Court.