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Suharto Fails To Show Up for Trial

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JAKARTA, INDONESIA (AP) — Prosecutors and pro-democracy activists hoped former dictator Suharto would face corruption charges in court Thursday. Instead of a historic trial, they saw an empty chair and heard excuses.

His doctors said Suharto is seriously ill and might suffer another stroke if forced to endure a lengthy trial. The five-judge panel opened the case, but then quickly granted a two-week delay for an independent medical evaluation.

Suharto, who ruled the world's fourth most populous nation for 32 years, is charged with pilfering the public purse of $583 million. His trial is seen as a key test of Indonesia's determination to stamp out corruption and deal with the excesses of his authoritarian rule that ended amid riots and protests in 1998.

A last-minute examination by 23 private physicians found that Suharto, 79, was too sick to show up at the tightly guarded auditorium specially converted into a courtroom.

Suharto's chief attorney Juan Felix Tampubolon said the doctors' report showed his client had been left brain damaged after three strokes in two years and could soon have another.

Doctors also cast doubt on Suharto's mental capabilities and said he also has high blood pressure, diabetes, as well as kidney and heart problems.

``He can only understand and express opinions on simple matters. For complex ones, he needs help and the quality of his answers cannot be fully guaranteed,'' another defense lawyer, Mohammad Assegaf, said reading from the medical assessment.

Dozens of activists inside the makeshift courtroom jeered when they realized Suharto had stayed at home. Outside, hundreds of student protesters, who say he stole billions of dollars and also want the former despot charged with human rights abuses, staged a noisy but peaceful demonstration. Many chanted: ``Try Suharto! Hang Suharto!''

Disappointed prosecutors claimed previous medical tests by state doctors had shown Suharto is fit enough to stand trial. They asked permission to seek a second opinion from independent physicians.

Chief judge Lalu Mariyun granted a delay until Sept. 14.

``I am absolutely disappointed. Two weeks is too long for just arranging the doctors to testify,'' said Farid Faqih of the anti-graft group, Government Watch. ``If they want to, they can force Suharto to come.''

Other legal experts warned that Suharto's lawyers could delay the trial on health almost indefinitely unless prosecutors demanded stronger action.

``It could become an endless process,'' said Hendardi, who heads the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation. Like Suharto he uses only one name.

Suharto has denied any wrongdoing. If convicted he could be imprisoned for life, although President Abdurrahman Wahid has offered a pardon if his ill-gotten wealth is returned to the state.

More than 1,200 police guarded the trial venue at the Agriculture Ministry.

Security concerns were heightened when a small bomb exploded Wednesday night inside an empty bus less that 300 yards away. No one was injured.

Spectators and journalists had their cars searched and also walked through metal detectors. The prosecutors and judges were flanked by bodyguards when they entered.

Suharto is accused of issuing presidential decrees to steal state money to enrich his six children and a circle of cronies who built huge business empires, according to a copy of the indictment obtained by The Associated Press.

It claimed that among other things, he skimmed 2 percent of the country's income tax revenue, took funds from sales taxes and snatched a percentage from the monthly paychecks of civil servants and military personnel.

Critics of the government of Wahid ? who last October became Indonesia's first freely elected head of state in four decades ? say Suharto also should be tried for human rights crimes.

Suharto's staunchly anti-communist regime was considered a reliable ally of the West.

But at least 500,000 people are believed to have perished in an army-inspired massacre of leftists and other political opponents that followed Suharto's rise to power in 1965. More were imprisoned on remote penal islands.

Up to 200,000 people in East Timor died after Suharto, a five-star general, ordered a bloody invasion of the former Portuguese colony in 1975.

In the northwestern province of Aceh, government forces battling separatists imposed a reign of terror in which thousands of civilians were killed. Elsewhere, death squads were used to silence critics.

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