January 20, 2008 / 7:03 AM / 12 years ago

Indonesia's Suharto tries to speak, lifts arm

By Telly Nathalia

JAKARTA, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Former Indonesian president Suharto was able to raise his arm on request and even tried to speak, doctors said on Sunday, as the ailing 86-year-old showed further signs of recovery after more than two weeks in hospital.

The former general has been critically ill since suffering multiple organ failure on Jan. 4, but doctors now say he could eventually recover enough to go home.

The vast country of 226 million people has been gripped by the swings in Suharto’s health in recent weeks.

The former strongman remains a polarising figure. He ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for 32 years and has never been brought to trial for human rights abuses or corruption that occurred while he was in power.

Jusuf Misbach, a neurologist, told a news conference Suharto was conscious on Sunday morning and could follow instructions.

"When we asked him to lift his hand, he lifted his left hand. He could feel itching. So he is getting better," Misbach said.

"He even tried to speak although his voice was still weak."

A tube for Suharto’s ventilator, which doctors hope to remove gradually, was switched on Saturday to his throat from the mouth to reduce risk of infection and prevent damage to voice chords.

The head of Suharto’s medical team, who last weekend gave Suharto only a 50:50 chance of survival, said his blood pressure was now stable, heart and lungs were functioning better and signs of systemic infection were under control.

"Today’s programme is to continue the improvement of the condition in general," Mardjo Soebiandono told a news conference, adding that Suharto would be given physiotherapy for leg and hand muscles, as well as help with his speech.

Sobiandono warned, however, that Suharto’s condition was still considered critical and he could relapse.

A series of long-serving Asian leaders have visited Suharto since he was hospitalised, including former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad.

A former Malaysian king visited him on Sunday morning.

"I held his hand. Praise be to Allah, Mr Suharto is gradually getting better," Tun Haji Ahmad Shah, the sultan of Pahang, told reporters, adding that Suharto had opened his eyes.

Suharto’s illness has fuelled a debate over whether to push ahead with legal action against him for graft.

Indonesian anti-riot police briefly clashed with about 100 students and human rights activists on Saturday who had gathered outside the Jakarta hospital where Suharto is being treated.

The protesters carried banners with the slogans "Stop Exploiting Suharto’s Condition", "Treat Suharto as a regular citizen", "Bring Suharto and his cronies to court" and "Confiscate the wealth of Suharto and his cronies".

After Suharto quit office in 1998 amid mass protests, he was charged with embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds.

Authorities later dropped the criminal case due to his poor health, although he faces a civil case related to the use of state funds by his charities.

Suharto and his family deny any wrongdoing. (Additional reporting by Ade Mariyadi; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Jerry Norton)



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