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Trial of Indonesian Parliament Leader Begins - 2002-03-25

The trial of Indonesia's parliamentary speaker, Akbar Tandjung, has opened in the capital Jakarta. The case threatens to break apart one of Indonesia's most powerful political parties.

Supporters of the parliamentary speaker applaud while reporters shout to try to catch his attention as he walks into a crowded courtroom. Wearing a shirt and tie and appearing relaxed, Mr. Tandjung did not respond to reporters.

Prosecutors charged Akbar Tandjung with corruption for his alleged part in a $4 million scandal. They charge that Mr. Tandjung took government funds that were intended for a humanitarian project and instead used them to finance his party's 1999 election campaign. Mr. Tandjung denies any wrongdoing.

The parliamentary speaker is also the head of the Golkar political party, now the second largest party in parliament. Golkar dominated Indonesian politics for more than 30 years during the rule of its founder, former President Suharto. But since Suharto was swept from power in 1998 in the tide of Indonesia's political reform movement, the party has been trying to find a new identity.

If Mr. Tandjung is convicted of corruption, some analysts say Golkar may break apart.

Mr. Tandjung is the highest-ranking politician to be put on trial since Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri promised to clamp down on the country's endemic corruption.

But critics charge that the case against Mr. Tandjung is more about politics, and that Indonesian legislators are manipulating the legal process for their own agendas. They point to the removal of former President Abdurrahman Wahid from office last July despite lawmakers ever proving corruption allegations against him.

Wimar Witoelar was Mr. Wahid's spokesman. Speaking Monday from Australia, he charges that the cases against the former President and Mr. Tandjung are the result of powerful lawmakers following their own agendas. "Whatever the person does, he's bound to go out because the bosses have declared he should be dismissed," he says. "In the time of President Wahid that is what parliament did. Now the same type of leaders not necessarily the same persons issue a verdict about what to do about Akbar should we let him twist, should we continue the trial."

Mr. Tandjung had been in the running for Indonesian presidency in the past and, if exonerated, could be a candidate for the next election in 2004.