JAKARTA, 2 August 1996 - In a desperate bid to reduce tensions in the city, the Central Jakarta district court yesterday refused to rule on whether to allow pro-democracy opposition members to return to their party headquarters which was sealed off by police on Saturday.
The court case was keeping Jakarta fearful of fresh disturbances after riots rocked the city last weekend, brought on by the police storming of the Indonesia Democratic Party (PDI) headquarters.
A judge told the packed courtroom that the case had been postponed to Aug 22 because Chief Judge I Gde Ketut Suarta had a toothache. He was to have headed the three-judge panel hearing the case.
Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno, is seeking to overturn her ouster by Parliamentary Deputy Speaker Suryadi as leader of the PDI at a rebel party congress organised by the military in June.
President Suharto, who overthrew Megawati's father in 1966, apparently is afraid of her growing popularity among Indonesians unhappy with his regime.
If she cannot win reinstatement, she will be ineligible to run for re-election to parliament next year or challenge Suharto in the 1998 presidential election.
''This is an urgent matter. As you know, our headquarters was attacked. We demand that it be returned,'' said her lawyer, Rio Tambunan. ''Megawati is still the chairwoman of the PDI.''
But Judge Zulkifli Lubis, one of the two judges present, said that without their missing colleague, they could not grant the request.
About 300 PDI supporters who were in the courthouse jeered Lubis' announcement that Suarta's dentist had given him a sick note to take three days off from his duties.
More than 1,000 Megawati supporters and bystanders who waited under a blazing tropical sun outside the courthouse applauded when her team of lawyers arrived. They were shouting: Long live Mega, long live Mega.''
Outside the courthouse, lawyer Tambunan delivered a 30-minute speech urging the angry crowd to go home. ''We know that we are going to win, we know that the truth is with us,'' he said.
Megawati did not attend the opening hearing but a number of her lieutenants, such as Alex Litaay, Kwik Kian Gie, Haryanto Taslam and Roy Bebeyanis, were there.
Security was heavy. The government said 1,000 police and soldiers were posted in the neighbourhood. Police with sticks held back spectators while soldiers with M-16 rifles guarded shops.
Army snipers were posted on rooftops and pedestrian overpasses. Earlier the army said that it would open fire if there were fresh disturbances.
In addition to her rival, Suryadi, defendants in Megawati's 51- trillion-rupiah (Bt563.5 billion) lawsuit include Interior Minister Yogie Memet, armed forces commander Gen Feisal Tanjung and national police Chief Lt Gen Dibyo Widodo.
Megawati said she chose the damage figure to commemorate the 51st anniversary of independence from the Netherlands this year.
Meanwhile, early yesterday hundreds of workers were evacuated from a skyscraper office complex in Jakarta's central business district after a bomb threat was received. The twin-tower building is owned by a publicly listed company, PT Mulialand.
There have been more than eight bomb threats here since Monday, following the weekend violence.
Most of the bomb threats turned out to be false alarms sparked by fear following the riots last weekend that left three dead, according to official figures. The PDI, however, said over 100 people have been killed and 153 of their activists are missing.
In a related development, the government said that it remained confident the weekend riots would not hurt Indonesia's investment climate.
Businessmen, however, remain jittery about the situation. ''We hope the impact will be rather negligible because things like this occur everywhere in the United States, Japan, South Korea,'' Minister of Investment Sanyoto Sastrowardoyo said.
The stock market strengthened yesterday, but brokers attributed the rise to bargain-hunting after falls earlier in the week. They said that the court case postponement had little impact.
By mid-session, the Jakarta composite stock index had gained 1.16 percent to 542.25 points. Brokers had said on Wednesday that they feared the gathering of Megawati supporters outside the courthouse could lead to fresh disturbances.
Businessman Soedarpo Sastrosatomo, the president of the Samudera Indonesia business group, however, expressed his concern over the impact of the riots on the economy.
''We've already lost a lot due to the riots. I hope it will not happen again as it will hurt our economy. We will be left far behind by our neighbouring countries if the riots continue,'' he said.
Referring to the experience of The Philippines after the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos, Sastrosatomo said that the business community would be nervous.
The Jakarta Post, the leading English-language newspaper, quoted a real estate magnate as saying that the riots could prompt serious capital flight, especially from ethnic Chinese businessmen who could be easily frightened into leaving the country.
In Bangkok, a group of students bearing placards smeared with red paint to symbolise blood demonstrated in front of the Indonesian Embassy yesterday to protest Jakarta's stance toward its political opposition.