Tony Hotland, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The government's decision to drop graft charges against former president Soeharto has been slammed by anticorruption and human rights groups, which say the ailing former strongman could still be tried in absentia.

They say the decision to drop the charges, announced Friday by the Attorney General's Office, is an insult to justice and will set a bad precedent for future efforts to stamp out corruption in the country.

Berlin-based Transparency International Indonesia (TII) said the prosecution of Soeharto remained necessary to produce legal certainty in the case, before the state considered pardoning the former president on health grounds.

The corruption watchdog, the board of which includes prominent Indonesian lawyer-cum-activist Todung Mulya Lubis, said the decision was inappropriate because, according to the Criminal Code, such a move meant the case was closed because of a lack of evidence and/or the absence of a crime.

TII said that to prevent this decision from becoming another precedent for legal impunity for the rich and powerful, the government must confiscate all of Soeharto's wealth believed to have been amassed through corruption.

Senior lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution has a similar view.

"The legal process in Soeharto's case is important to see that a moral standard and the values of truth and justice are upheld. The government should continue the legal process, if necessary through an in absentia trial to declare whether or not Soeharto is guilty of anything," he said.

Buyung said the government also should take into account the fates of the thousands of people who were victimized by the policies of the Soeharto regime.

"I hope the elites will not only see Soeharto's services to the country and his poor health, but also the fact that many victims died, their graves unmarked and their families still pursuing justice," he said.

Lucky Djani of Indonesian Corruption Watch said the decision to drop the charges against Soeharto marked the end of the national drive against corruption.

Like Soeharto, whose prosecution was halted due to ill health and his past services to the nation, other high-profile criminals could use similar excuses to escape justice, Lucky warned.

The Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation said the courts had the power to force Soeharto to stand trial, as part of the principle of equality before the law.

The Presidium of the Indonesian Youth Congress, which was set up by a number of different youth organizations in 1999, said halting the prosecution of Soeharto violated the spirit of democracy, and that an in absentia trial was the most feasible option.

Longtime Soeharto critic Amien Rais said the country needed closure in this case.

"It (Soeharto's case) has been discussed over the past eight years. There should be no more delays in settling this case once for all," he said.

The former People's Consultative Assembly speaker suggested that Soeharto be tried in absentia to give witnesses the opportunity to testify against the former president. Then the judges could deliver a verdict, determining Soeharto's legal status.

"After the verdict, the President could grant a pardon, clemency or amnesty," he said.

Attorney General Abdul Rahman Saleh and Supreme Court Chief Justice Bagir Manan have both dismissed the idea of trying Soeharto in absentia, saying the former president does not qualify for an in absentia trial according to regulations governing such proceedings.

An in absentia trial, the two said, is possible only when the suspect is physically absent as a show of resisting the law, such as fleeing abroad
"People say funny things......."

Peter Kay