JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the conviction of parliament Speaker Akbar Tanjung on corruption charges, clearing the way for him to run for president this year.
The ruling was immediately criticized by democracy activists, who feared that it would reinforce Indonesia's reputation as one of the most corrupt countries.
Tanjung, leader of the former ruling Golkar Party, was found guilty in September 2002 and sentenced to three years in prison for siphoning off $4.5 million in government funds intended for the poor and using the money to fund party activities.
An appellate court subsequently upheld the verdict.
In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Tanjung maintained that, as a government minister, he had transferred the money to the party on orders from then-President B. J. Habibie. Tanjung also argued that he did not personally profit from the transfer and later returned the money.
"The defendant, Akbar Tanjung, is not guilty of committing criminal acts and therefore must be freed and his name and reputation rehabilitated," Judge Paulus Lotulong said at the end of a daylong reading of the court's findings.
Thousands of supporters and opponents demonstrated outside the courtroom, and dozens were injured in scuffles with police.
Tanjung, who remained free pending the outcome of the appeal, watched the reading of the decision at home on television.
"I thank God for fulfilling my prayers and the Supreme Court justices who have received my appeal," he told reporters.
Tanjung took over leadership of the party after the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998 and is now widely expected to be named Golkar's candidate to face incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri in the first round of presidential elections set for July.
Lawyers and anti-corruption officials say that Indonesia's courts are among the most corrupt in the world and cases are frequently decided in favor of the side that pays the most money.
However, some legal experts said that, in Tanjung's case, there was a legal basis for the decision and that he was exonerated because the government bungled the prosecution.
"There is a very valuable lesson from the Akbar Tanjung case," said University of Indonesia law professor Teuku Nasrullah.
"The legal apparatus should not be hasty when handling a case," he said. "They should be very thorough during the investigation.
"When after an investigation they conclude there is a criminal act, they should be very certain what kind of crime it is."
But even if the high court's five judges did base their 4-1 decision on the law, some activists said the outcome would add to Indonesia's corrupt image.
"The cost to free Akbar Tanjung in this case is very expensive because the trust of the people in justice, judges and the court are destroyed," said Hendardi, the chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Assn. Like many Indonesians, he goes by only one name.
As Indonesia prepares for its first direct election to select a president, the candidate who may have lost the most ground Thursday is Wiranto, the former general and security minister who is seeking Golkar's nomination.
Wiranto has been accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the violence that accompanied a 1999 election in East Timor that led to the independence of the former province. Despite the accusations, he is widely viewed as a patriot and may have given Megawati the toughest challenge.
However, with the Supreme Court's rehabilitation of Tanjung, the Golkar leader becomes the favorite to win his party's nomination and advance to a possible September runoff with Megawati.