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Suharto's Suit Against Time Thrown Out

Court rules there is insufficient supporting evidence in former Indonesian president's libel case

By Devi Asmarani
Straits Times Indonesia Bureau

JAKARTA -- Former President Suharto yesterday lost his first legal battle after his fall from power when his multi-billion dollar libel suit against Time magazine was thrown out by a Jakarta court. Central Jakarta District Judge Sihol Sitompul ruled that the US$27-billion (S$46 billion) defamation suit against the US magazine could not be accepted for lack of supporting evidence.

""The panel of judges deems that in the reports of the Time magazine, there are no elements of libel as has been alleged by the plaintiff. Therefore, the charges of the plaintiff should be all rejected,'' Judge Sitompul, who heads a panel of three judges, said, reading the verdict.

The 78-year-old former strongman, who is currently under house arrest while being investigated for corruption, filed the lawsuit last July after Time reported in a cover story in May 1999 that he and his family had amassed a fortune of US$15 billion during his 32 years in power.

Time also alleged that Suharto had hurriedly transfered money from a bank in Switzerland to another in Austria shortly after he fell from power in May 1998 amid mass protests.

Suharto had claimed that the article defamed him as well as the state of Indonesia.

Time's lawyer, Mr Todung Mulya Lubis, hailing the verdict, told The Straits Times: ""This victory does not belong to Time alone, but to the free press in general.''

He said he had expected to win the case because Suharto's argument that the report was defamatory was ""weak'', as other media had already published

similar reports on his wealth earlier than the magazine.

Mr Suharto's lawyer, Mr Juan Felix Tampubolon, said his client would appeal against the verdict, which he described as unfair.

He said the failure of the court to provide what he called a ""fair ruling'' was because ""of the mistake of the judges in bringing in expert witnesses''.

""The judges presented expert witnesses, but goaded the expert witnesses to give their assessment on the case rather than testimony on their respective expertise,'' Mr Tampubolon said.

The former strongman, who turns 79 tomorrow, suffered a mild stroke last year.

He has been barred from leaving either Jakarta or the country since April 12, and the authorities put him under house arrest last month.

Meanwhile, Mr Dwiyanto Prihartono, the secretary general of the Centre of Indonesian Legal Aid, said the latest decision would not likely affect the ongoing Suharto corruption case.

The Attorney-General's office has planned to conclude its investigation on the former leader by Aug 10.

""We all knew this was just a PR gimmick. Suharto did not have a strong case against Time to begin with,'' said Mr Dwiyanto.

Meanwhile, the Time Asia Editor, Mr Donald Morrison, said in a statement that ""naturally we're pleased at the court's decision.

""It is a victory for press freedom, judicial independence and the people of Indonesia''.

The U.S. Embassy also welcomed the ruling as ""a clear victory for the Indonesian justice system.''

-------------

Straits Times June 7, 2000

Points raised

Charge: Time claimed incorrectly that Suharto had a US$15-billion fortune.

Court: Time simply said it ""had information about Suharto's wealth''. It is allowed to estimate.

Charge: Caricature of Suharto's face in an 18th century wig on dollar bill with a few zeros and words Suharto Inc is an insult and misrepresentation.

Court: Caricature is ""normal''.

Charge: The use of "Suharto Inc' defames the former president.

Court: The phrase is not an insult to Suharto.

Charge: Time incorrectly attributed an exclusive London home to Suharto.

Court: The house was proven to be owned by Suharto at the time, so it is not an insult to say Suharto owned it.

+++niuswire

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