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Tommy Suharto's Trial for Murder Opens This Week - 2002-03-19

Indonesia's legal system is facing a critical test this week with the opening of the trial against the son of former president Suharto. Tommy Suharto goes on trial Wednesday on charges of masterminding the murder a Supreme Court judge.

Of all the members of the once mighty Suharto family, it is the youngest son, Hutomo Mandala Putra, who has arguably fallen the furthest since his father was forced from power in 1998. Known to many as Tommy Suharto, the 40-year-old earned a reputation across Indonesia for flashy clothes and a playboy lifestyle. Along with his five siblings, Mr. Suharto is believed by many Indonesians to have used his father's influence to amass a personal fortune. When a business venture looked ready to fail, critics say, his family name allowed him to overlook laws that would otherwise have forced his projects into bankruptcy. But things changed when Indonesia's democracy movement forced former President Suharto to resign after 30 years in power. Tommy Suharto was convicted in September 2000 of taking part in a multi-million dollar land scam and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. That made him the first member of Suharto family to be convicted for graft. He then went into hiding, eluding capture for more than a year. Some however charged that members of the Indonesian police or military protected Mr. Suharto allowing him to stay out of jail. During his time on the run, Mr. Suharto's corruption conviction was overturned. But it is the murder of the Supreme Court judge who sentenced him to prison that snared Mr. Suharto back from virtual freedom.

Authorities charged that Mr. Suharto had organized the killing and apprehended him last November. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. Mr. Suharto's trial is seen as an important test for Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri who has made repeated pledges to crackdown on Indonesia's endemic corruption. But analysts say it is too soon to tell whether a conviction in the case would boost her reputation for brining all alleged wrongdoers to justice.