JAKARTA Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto faced fresh accusations of criminal behavior on Thursday after his former boss released details of a military council's findings that led to his discharge from the armed forces nearly 16 years ago.
Opinion polls suggest that Prabowo has been closing in on the front-runner ahead of the July 9 presidential election.
But his campaign has been repeatedly dogged by accusations of widespread human rights abuses during his days as a top general, in particular during unrest that brought down his former father-in-law and long-serving autocrat Suharto in 1998.
The latest accusations were detailed at a news conference by Suharto's last armed forces chief, Wiranto, who now heads a small political party which is backing Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, the man polls predict should win the two-man race for the presidency.
Wiranto, whose comments were carried live on a pro-Jokowi television station, read out details from the findings of a military council which said Prabowo has deliberately misinterpreted orders and told troops who were not under his command to arrest activists.
The council said in the document, signed in August 1998, that Prabowo's "actions tend towards a habit of neglecting systems of operations, hierarchy, discipline and law".
It also accused him of criminal behavior by kidnapping the activists.
"It was proven by the honorary council that Prabowo was involved in the kidnappings case ... what is clear is that he was discharged for that reason," Wiranto said, declining to get into a debate about whether it was an honorable or dishonorable discharge.
Prabowo's brother, and the central figure in his presidential campaign, recently insisted that the former general was following orders.
'DEFEND THE TRUTH'
Wiranto insisted that he was not making his announcement in his capacity as a politician.
"As a Muslim, my duty is to straighten out something that isn't correct and, as a former soldier, to defend the truth and justice," he said.
But the manner of the announcement, and its timing, suggest that the Jokowi camp is worried by the increasing popularity of Prabowo whose tough, action-man image and nationalist rhetoric in support of ordinary Indonesians, plus a well-organised campaign, appears to have struck a chord with many voters.
Some opinion polls shows that Jokowi's once huge lead has shrunk to single digits.
Wiranto himself has long been under a cloud over accusations of human rights abuses carried out by the military when it was under his command during the unrest that led to Suharto's downfall and later when troops laid waste to large parts of East Timor after it voted to become independent after almost a quarter of a century of Indonesian rule.
Both he and Prabowo have in the past been refused visas to enter the United States, apparently over their human rights records.
The document from the military council has been circulating on the Internet for the past few weeks but this was the first time that any of the former generals involved publicly released its contents. One of the generals who signed the document in 1998 is current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The subject is deeply sensitive in the Prabowo camp. Recent requests by Reuters to interview Prabowo have been met by requests that its reporters do not challenge him on his human rights record and focus questions on other issues.
(Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Robert Birsel)