25 September 2007

Soeharto Inc vs. Time - Seriously Flawed

Reality check! Are you serious? Nah, not possible!

Just when you might have been thinking that the Indonesian judiciary was turning the corner and becoming more accountable and transparent in its decision making processes the Supreme Court (Mahkamah Agung / MA) comes along and blows that all out of the water and re-establishes the old order of things, the Court Mafia rules supreme yet again.

Yet, the decision is unlikely to be a seminal moment in Indonesian legal history but nevertheless it is a watershed moment and one where the challenge is now fairly and squarely with the press to step up and fight for itself and its beliefs that there is a right to press freedom and independence, particularly from this type of judicial interference in investigative reporting both here in Indonesia and abroad.

The case stems from a Time report in 1999 that suggested that Soeharto and his cronies embezzled, syphoned off, or flat out stole some USD 73 billion dollars. Yep, that's right my fair readers 73 billion big ones, I guess what Gordon Gecko says is is true after all "greed is good". Two lower courts found the article at the centre of the claim to be problem free but the MA has decided that the article defames Soeharto's good name and awarded IDR 1 trillion (about USD 106 million) in damages and an order for the magazine to rehabilitate the former dictator's good name.

Interestingly, the UN and the world bank have offered up their services in the form of data and have listed Soeharto and the top of their corrupt officials list along with other notables such as the former Philippines strong man, Ferdinand Marcos (long dead) and Albert Fujimori (soon to be extradited back to Peru from Chile). Yet, it will be interesting to see whether this data is anything more than clippings and other circumstantial data or whether it is cold hard evidence that can be adduced in a court of law. If it is, and Time is almost certainly going to appeal this verdict, then this 'new' evidence could be used to support Time's appeal for review.

The court mafia is clearly alive and well in the MA if not throughout the judicial system. Intriguing is that the Chief Judge in this case, Hoediarto, is the former head of the military court, which in itself is not surprising considering he is a retired general. Nevertheless, the question is whether or not he is a suitable appointment to this case considering the complex nature of defamation action and the overlap with the press law. Yet, the MA has a history of appointing panels of judges that might not be up to speed on the subject matter of the case. It was not so long ago that the MA appointed a panel of religious court justices to hear a matter involving complex financial transactions, the issue of bonds, and an application to cancel these bonds - their verdict was another one for the ages where almost USD 1 billion in bonds were cancelled. Quite a windfall if you are the issuer of these bonds not so if you are a holder of the bonds where that sinking feeling down into the pit of your stomach can be overwhelming to say the least.

The bigger problem here though is whether there is a serious commitment to judicial reform and renewal within the courts themselves. It is decisions like this one that brings the lack of commitment to change to the fore. One must continue to hope because without hope there is nothing left to cling on to.

More to follow on these shenanigans.

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