JAKARTA, Sept 11, 2007 (AFP) – A decision by Indonesia’s top court to award ex-dictator Suharto millions of dollars in a defamation suit calls the judiciary’s integrity into question and imperils press freedom, activists and analysts warned Tuesday.

The Supreme Court ordered on Monday that US-based Time magazine pay damages to Suharto to the tune of 106 million dollars for publishing an article in 1999 that alleged the former president squirrelled away billions of dollars abroad.

Time said in its story that it had traced some 15 billion dollars in wealth accumulated by Suharto and his six children following a four-month investigation across 11 countries.

This allegedly included nine billion dollars in cash transferred from a Swiss to an Austrian bank shortly after Suharto stepped down in May 1998.

The court also ruled that Time apologise to 86-year-old Suharto, who has never stood trial over persistent allegations of massive corruption during his 32-year rule.

The ruling showed the Supreme Court was out of touch with "the new situation now prevailing in Indonesia," said Amiruddin, a campaign coordinator for Elsham, a private policy institute.

Suharto’s downfall ushered in an era of reform to the world’s fourth most populous nation, but many have been disappointed over the pace of change in some areas — such as the judiciary, where Suharto’s shadow still looms large.

"We can only surmise that the characteristics of many of the Supreme Court judges have not changed from, let us say, 10 years ago. They continue to put Suharto on a pedestal, as he if he was a god," Amiruddin told AFP.

"The only way (to instigate change) is to inject young blood into that institution," he said.

Fadjroel Rachman, who heads an Indonesian research group working to uncover Suharto’s crimes, said he feared the "scandalous" decision may colour other court action underway against Suharto and his youngest son Tommy.

State prosecutors are bringing a civil suit against Suharto over alleged corruption related to some foundations he chaired. They are seeking 1.5 billion dollars in returned state assets and damages.

Tommy meanwhile is facing criminal and civil graft-related suits.

"The Supreme Court is being used to save corruptors… The individuals in the Supreme Court behind this case are Suharto’s proteges," Rachman charged.

He noted that head judge Bagir Manan, who was on the three-judge panel ruling in Suharto’s favour, had cut a jail term Tommy was serving for ordering the murder of a judge.

Manan was also on a panel that quashed the conviction of a pilot for murdering a high-profile activist critical of Suharto-era abuses.

"This is suspicious," he said.

Supreme Court judges — at most, 60 — are selected by a judicial commission and approved by parliament. They retain their post until retirement.

Gunawan Muhammad, former editor of the Tempo weekly news magazine, said that the impact of the decision was to cast "the Supreme Court itself in a bad light," adding that it was also a worrying move for press freedom.

Frans Hendra Winata, a member of the national commission of law, described the ruling as a significant setback for a formerly shackled press which has flourished since Suharto’s demise.

The press "will not be able to help efforts to eradicate corruption and with this verdict, it is now clear on whose side the Supreme Court is… The press will now think twice before reporting on corruption," he said.

Julia Fromholz from Human Rights First, a New York-based organisation that monitors accountability in Indonesia, said the decision stood in stark contrast to the failure to bring rights cases from Suharto’s era to trial.

"The courts have long failed to hold past and current officials accountable for their actions, but this decision even further highlights the persistence of impunity in Indonesia," she told AFP.

/ Current Affairs