Updated: 06/10/2014 15:50 | By Agence France-Presse

Indonesia presidential candidate defends rights record

A presidential candidate who served as a general during Indonesia's three-decade Suharto dictatorship has emotionally defended himself against alleged human rights abuses committed during his service in a televised election debate.

Indonesia presidential candidate defends rights record

Indonesian presidential and vice presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto (2L) and Hatta Rajasa (L) answer questions during a live television debate in Jakarta on June 9, 2014 - by Bay Ismoyo

Prabowo Subianto, who faces favourite Joko Widodo at the July 9 election, was a top military figure in the chaotic months before dictator Suharto was toppled by student protests in 1998.

Following the strongman's downfall, he admitted ordering the abduction of democracy activists and was discharged from the military for exceeding orders, but has never faced a civilian court. 

The ex-general is seen as a serious contender against Widodo, who is known by his nickname of Jokowi and won legions of fans during his time as Jakarta governor. 

However Prabowo's past came back to haunt him late Monday during the first televised debate ahead of the election, when Widodo's running mate, former vice president Jusuf Kalla, confronted him about the abuse allegations.

"I know what you are implying, that I cannot protect human rights and that I am a human rights violator," Prabowo said, his voice becoming emotional.

"We (soldiers) in remote areas must frequently take actions for the safety of the Indonesian people."

He added: "My conscience is clean, I'm the strongest human rights defender in this republic."

As well as declaring Widodo the resounding winner of the debate, media on Tuesday welcomed the tough questions about Prabowo's past, and said he had been left floundering.

The Jakarta Globe newspaper declared it a "victory for the people", saying rights abuses against Prabowo had rarely been discussed openly in the past.

"Prabowo's response to the question last night was pitiful and sadly unremorseful," added the Jakarta Post daily.

Widodo put in a confident performance in the debate, the first in a series of five ahead of the election, which will give him a boost following criticism of his poor public speaking skills.

Observers predict a tight race. A recent poll put Widodo eight percent ahead of Prabowo, a far smaller lead than a few weeks ago, with surveys showing many voters still undecided.

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