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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Indonesian Prosecutors Charge Ailing Suharto

SYDNEY, Australia -- Indonesia's attorney general filed corruption charges against former President Suharto on Wednesday, accusing him of skimming $157 million from seven charitable foundations he controlled during his 23 years of rule in Jakarta.

The effort to prosecute the ailing former dictator is the strongest sign yet that the country's new democratic government is serious about addressing the graft and human-rights abuses that defined the Suharto era and forging a new civil society based on the rule of law.

Suharto, who was forced to resign in 1998 as the Asian financial crisis spawned social chaos in Indonesia, is alleged to have amassed billions of dollars in illegal wealth for himself, his children and his business associates as he transformed the vast archipelago from a backwater to one of Asia's fastest-growing economies.

Officials in the attorney general's office expect Suharto to be formally indicted sometime next month, after trial-court prosecutors review the documents and submit them to a judge. But it is unclear whether the former president will see the inside of a courtroom, and he almost certainly will never be jailed.

Suharto, 79, who has been under house arrest for the past two months, has suffered two strokes and his attorneys say he is unfit to stand trial or be questioned by prosecutors. Even if he is tried and convicted, President Abdurrahman Wahid has promised to pardon him if he apologizes and returns ill-gotten money. Wahid has said he is determined "to make national reconciliation a priority for the nation."

The former president and his family have denied allegations of corruption, insisting they are being pursued by prosecutors because of political vendettas. "The [attorney general's] office has raped Suharto's rights," Suharto's lawyer, Juan Felix Tampubolon, told Reuters Wednesday. "They prefer to put political needs above the supremacy of the law."

Wahid is scheduled to deliver his state-of-the-nation speech during a special parliament session next month. Several legislators have criticized Wahid's administration for not moving more quickly and aggressively in the investigation of Suharto.

Student protesters have also voiced the same complaint. Hundreds of demonstrators have surrounded Suharto's home in the past few months, calling for the former president to be jailed or hanged.

The charges also come as former political figures, businessmen and military officers loyal to the former autocrat are alleged to be funneling arms and money to Islamic fighters in the strife-torn Moluccas islands, where they have been largely responsible for a recent escalation in sectarian violence. Officials loyal to Wahid contend the support of the Islamic fighters is part of a campaign by Suharto loyalists to undermine Wahid.

The attorney general, Marzuki Darusman, who is a member of Suharto's Golkar political party, has maintained that the months-long investigation was not influenced by politics or a desire for retribution. "We are only looking at the evidence and the law," Marzuki said in a recent interview.

Marzuki, whose office began seizing Suharto's assets a few weeks ago, said the $157 million corruption case is not meant to identify all of the former president's money. "We're charging Suharto for corruption," Marzuki said Wednesday. "We are not addressing the scale of the money that may have been channeled elsewhere."

The attorney general was confident that the trial-court prosecutors would approve the documents and submit them to a Jakarta court in early August.

But a member of Suharto's legal team, Mohamad Assegaf, argued that his client is too sick to be taken to court. "There is slowness in recalling things, difficulty in communicating and explaining his thoughts," Assegaf said. "Such an ill person should not be brought to trial."

Although officials in the attorney general's office acknowledge that Suharto has answered questions during interrogation sessions in simple sentences, they insisted the former president is fit enough face a trial.