By: ALI KOTARUMALOS
Indonesia’s highest court ordered Time magazine to pay $106 million in damages for defaming former dictator Suharto by alleging his family amassed billions of dollars during his 32-year rule, officials said Monday.
The May 1999 cover story in the magazine’s Asian edition said much of the money had been transferred from Switzerland to Austria before Suharto stepped down amid riots and pro-democracy protests in 1998.
Suharto, who has also been accused of widespread rights abuses, filed a lawsuit with the Central District Jakarta and later the Jakarta High Court, both of which ruled in Time’s favor.
A panel of three Supreme Court judges, including a retired general who rose in the military ranks during Suharto’s administration, overturned the decisions on Aug. 31. The ruling ordered Time Inc. Asia and six employees to apologize in leading Indonesian magazines and newspapers as well as Time’s Asian, European and America editions.
“Time magazine has to pay $106 million for defaming Suharto,” said Supreme Court spokesman Nurhadi, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. “The article and photographs hurt the image and pride of the plaintiff as a great retired army general and the former Indonesian president.”
Suharto’s lawyer, Muhamad Assegaf, welcomed the “surprise verdict.”
Although the Supreme Court is Indonesia’s highest, one final appeal is possible.
Time spokesman Daniel Kile said in New York that the magazine had no comment since it had not received any notification from the court about a ruling. He said the magazine continued to stand by its story.
The magazine, which is owned by Time Inc., the magazine publishing division of media conglomerate Time Warner Inc., has said its article was based on four months of reporting in 11 countries that uncovered a complex network of corporate investments, bank transfers and property holdings in Switzerland, Uzbekistan and Nigeria.
The former dictator, now 86, seized power in a 1965 coup that left up to half a million people dead and ruled the country with an iron fist for the next three decades, killing or imprisoning hundreds of thousands of political opponents.
He has evaded prosecution on charges of embezzling state funds, with lawyers successfully arguing he is too ill to stand trial, and has never been tried for human rights abuses. Still, Suharto faces a lawsuit filed by the attorney general that seeks to retrieve $1.54 billion in alleged stolen state funds. Court documents show prosecutors want Suharto to repay $441 million in allegedly stolen funds and $1.1 billion in damages.
The Time article, titled “The Family Firm,” alleged that Suharto and his children amassed $73 billion, the bulk from oil and mining, forestry, property, banking and petrochemicals, but lost much of it during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
It alleged that the family still had $15 billion in 1999.