Indonesia's students want justice for Suharto

JAKARTA (Reuters) - As a student activist, Heri Akhmadi was beaten and jailed. Unable to witness the birth of his son because he was in prison, he named the boy Gempur Suharto, or “Attack Suharto,” after the man he holds responsible for his suffering.

As Indonesia’s former president Suharto lies critically ill in a Jakarta hospital, many of his victims regret that the former general who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for 32 years has not been charged with crimes, even a decade after his ouster.

“Suharto took so many lives when he rose to power and he did the same when he stepped down,” said Heri, who was jailed during university demonstrations in 1978 demanding that the People’s Consultative Assembly not reappoint Suharto to another presidential term.

Suharto, now 86, came to power after he crushed what was officially described as an anti-communist coup in 1965.

Up to half a million people died in an army-backed purge in the following months, while intellectuals, teachers and artists, including the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer and the painter Hendra Gunawan, were among the thousands of Indonesians sent to jail or labor camps for suspected left-wing sympathies.

During Suharto’s 32 years in power, the armed forces crushed dissent in Aceh, Papua and East Timor, killed student activists, and were linked to extrajudicial killings of criminals.

“I was one of those lucky enough to escape. But what about others who were made to disappear or those who were killed?” said Heri, who in 1996 joined the political party headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia’s president from 2001 to 2004.


The Suharto regime’s suppression of student activists continued well into the 1990s.

Budiman Sudjatmiko, also a member of Megawati’s political party, told Reuters he was one of several students rounded up in 1996 and put on trial on the grounds he had masterminded a riot in Jakarta in 1996.

“The court was steered by the government and they could not prove that I was the mastermind of the event,” said Sudjatmiko, who was at the office of Megawati’s party during the riot.

“After they could not prove that I was guilty, the trial shifted to my political views and perspective and they charged me with subversion.”

He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, but was saved from that fate when Suharto, who could no longer put a stop to widespread rioting, resigned from office.

“Putting him (Suharto) on trial is about investing in this country’s future, more than just doing justice, and has nothing to do with revenge,” said Sudjatmiko, now 37.

“For those who fought for it and went to prison for it, democracy is all the more sweet and wonderful.”


While Heri and Sudjatmiko entered politics following Suharto’s fall, student activist Nezar Patria, 37, said he chose to continue his fight against the Suharto regime as a journalist.

As a student, Nezar went underground, cutting off contact with his family in Aceh after they were visited by intelligence officers who wanted to know his whereabouts.

“The Education and Culture Ministry branded me as a member of a radical student movement which supported communism. During my two years underground, I had to move from one place to another to escape military intelligence. I wrote articles to support myself and I managed to finish my thesis from my hideout,” he told Reuters.

But he and three friends were kidnapped in March 1998 by a group called “Rose Team,” an anti-terrorism unit of the Special

Forces under the command of Suharto’s former son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto.

Nezar said he was blindfolded and tortured for three days, then jailed for three months, and only released after Suharto’s ouster. Months after his release, Nezar would break out in a sweat just hearing a walky-talky like he ones he heard during his kidnapping.

Years later, he came face to face with Prabowo when he was working as a reporter.

“I felt nothing while interviewing him because I had prepared. I had to be professional, not emotional,” said Nezar.

As for Suharto, “he may be honored, but he is also a coward who doesn’t want to admit his wrongdoing.”

Reporting by Fitri Wulandari and Harry Suhartono; Editing by Sara Webb and Bill Tarrant