In The News

Beleaguered by Graft, Indonesians Shocked by High Court Corruption

October 9, 2013

Indonesia finds itself in a crisis of confidence this week after its Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) arrested the chief justice of the Constitutional Court for allegedly accepting a bribe to fix the verdict of a local election dispute.

Indonesia Constitutional Court

In the 10 years since it was established, the Constitutional Court, pictured above, has been one of Indonesia’s most credible institutions, a beacon of hope for the rule of law.

Twitter lit up last Wednesday around midnight as the news spread – KPK officials were at the residence of Akil Mochtar, a former parliamentarian who has served on the Constitutional Court since 2008. Initial disbelief was soon replaced by emotional responses from the public – ranging from profound devastation to copious glee that the KPK had made the case against yet another high-level official. “I feel betrayed, because I thought he was clean. I’m brokenhearted,” one journalist tweeted. Another popular Twitter personality quipped, “Hang him from the National Monument! Along with the other corruptors.”

Astonishment and desolation

In the 10 years since it was established, the Constitutional Court has been one of Indonesia’s most credible institutions, a beacon of hope for the rule of law. For many, Akil’s arrest demonstrated not only how far graft has permeated, but just how difficult it is to yank out the roots of corruption.In an unusual public statement, the day after the arrest, President Yudhoyono expressed shock, citing the importance of the Constitutional Court and the key role it plays in the country. Over the weekend, the president presided over emergency meetings to address the situation, just as the country put on a smile to welcome some of the world’s highest-ranking officials to Bali for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

A sense of betrayal was evident across Indonesia’s vibrant social media, indicating Akil was clearly not considered your average crooked official prior to his arrest. He portrayed himself as an anti-graft figure working for an institution that enjoys a reputation as Indonesia’s cleanest. Well-liked by journalists for his accessibility, Akil was prone to offering colorful observations about the country’s fight against corruption. Last March, Tempo newspaper quoted Akil as saying “Rather than sentence [corruptors] to death, it’s better to combine impoverishing them and cutting off one of their fingers.” But on Thursday, when a reporter called him out on it as he left the KPK after questioning, he lashed out and slapped the journalist, sparking further outrage in the media.

Many activists were quick to point out that graft allegations have dogged Akil for years. His nomination to the Court created discontent among advocates who had heard rumors of Akil’s accepting bribes as early as 2006. Three years ago, the Court’s own ethics panel convened to investigate an allegation against Akil and another justice for receiving bribes in a local elections dispute in North Sumatra. Cleared of all charges, Akil stayed on while the other justice in the case took early retirement.

Public wrath: enough is enough

Last Thursday, the Constitutional Court’s founding chief justice, Jimly Asshidique, called for prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Akil. Others followed suit, clearly fed up with never-ending headlines about greedy, unethical behavior by so many politicians and government leaders.

Indeed, Indonesia can’t seem to go more than a few months without news stories about money, politics, sex, and greed. Just eight months ago, scandal rocked the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which enjoyed significant public support around its platform of zero tolerance for corruption. When the party’s chair, Luthfi Hasan Ishnaq, was accused of accepting money to use his influence to increase the import quota of a beef importer, the revelations that followed read like a script from a soap opera.

Luthfi’s assistant, Ahmad Fathanah, was arrested in a hotel, in bed with a young woman who said she’d been paid $1,000 to meet him there, and with $100,000 in cash he couldn’t otherwise explain. In the days following, as many as 45 women reported to the KPK as having received gifts from Fathanah. As Luthfi’s luxury cars and houses were seized, it was soon discovered he’d recently taken a third wife – age 19. Indonesians were left shaking their heads and lamenting the state of a political party that achieved the country’s fourth-largest parliamentary faction by running candidates on a platform of personal morality. Luthfi’s trial is ongoing, with witnesses just this week providing testimony that bribes paid to the former party leader may have totaled in excess of several million dollars.

With such bad behavior on regular public display, many did little more than roll their eyes as Akil’s scandal grew more sensational with the KPK confirming it had found drugs, including ecstasy and marijuana, at Akil’s Constitutional Court office. Since Indonesians consistently show strong support for harsh penalties against drug offences, Akil should have an even harder time garnering any public sympathy.

What’s really at risk?

As Indonesia digests the week’s news, justice sector experts emphasized the serious implications for the country’s judiciary. Akil himself was involved in drafting the law that established the Constitutional Court 10 years ago, which strengthened rule of law by establishing the right of every citizen to request a judicial review. The Court makes final, binding decisions on regulatory reviews, disagreements between state institutions, and election disputes. The founding justices of the Court worked hard to establish a culture of transparency that has rarely been seen elsewhere in Indonesia’s justice system.

Akil is accused of accepting cash related to a review of a recently concluded local election in Gunung Mas, Central Kalimantan. Cynics are disappointed to find that it took less than a decade for politically appointed judges to sully the Court’s ethics. The Court has been credited with playing a leading role in preventing post-election violence by giving hundreds of regional disputants their “day in court” after votes are tallied. This week’s arrest therefore confirms longstanding fears that the final word on such elections is vulnerable to bribery. As Indonesians head to the polls in less than six months to elect a new president, money politics are already on everyone’s minds. Will citizens have any confidence that the court can’t be bribed should results of the national election end up being disputed?

A reason to celebrate?

Optimists say that this arrest is just more evidence the Indonesia’s anti-corruption body is a formidable force.

In a separate case revealed on the heels of his arrest, Akil was also named a suspect for allegedly accepting an $885,000 bribe from Tubagus Chaeri Wardana, a member of a political dynasty that runs the province of Banten. Despite being a few hours drive from Jakarta, Banten remains one of Indonesia’s worst-off regions, whose endemic socio-economic problems are often seen as a result of poor governance. The province is presided over by Governor Ratu Atut Chosiyah, whose family members hold eight senior positions in district governments across Banten – including Ratu’s husband, son, brother, sister, step-mother, sister-in-law, and daughter-in-law. The arrest of Tubagus and Akil has delighted some anti-graft activists, who have long accused the family of rigging elections to hold on to power.

Akil’s case also follows the KPK flexing its muscles earlier this year when it arrested Police Insp. Gen. Djoko Susilo. The counter-corruption movement got a morale boost when Djoko was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and the state seized an estimated $2 million of ill-gotten funds and assets. It was the first time a serving police general was successfully caught in the KPK’s net, and signified a victory in the long rivalry over who has the authority to handle graft cases involving police personnel.

Whether we are fearful for the future, disgusted by the greed of our leaders, or finding reassurance knowing that Indonesia’s counter-corruption system is working, the whole country eagerly awaits what tomorrow’s headlines will bring.

Laurel MacLaren is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at laurel.maclaren@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

2 comments on this post:

  1. Hasan M. Soedjono:

    I find similarities in the outrage of shock, disappointment, and vengefulness when one hears that a young child is sexually abused by a guardian — like a teacher, priest, parent, grandparent, etc.

    Although there is obvious anger at the incident — and especially in the root and structural causes — I personally feel much better now. Better, because some part of the system is working to plan and intentions. Even in the most perfect rule-of-law societies, shocking cases are unearthed. When is it ever better (or preferable) to not have these cases go uncovered? One might dismiss my sentiments as coming from a typical Javanese who finds solace in suffering, but to me the logic is simple. Is it better to have child abuse and corruption to go undetected, or to catch the perpetrators — albeit little, rare, few, and far between?

    Of course we should focus on why these things occur, and how to prevent them from happening at all. Indeed, the ability of institutions like KPK and Tipikor in catching and successfully trying the guilty is surely top in such a list. KPK and Tipikor works. Let’s see if the rest of the system and institutional reforms improve as well. As long as bigger and bigger fish keep getting caught, and more and more of them, then I join the celebration of the optimists.

    An important step ahed is to strengthen the laws regarding the financing (and its requisite transparency) of financing (and funding) of political parties. Just follow the money.

  2. Robert:

    It is easy to understand why an Indonesian public, so weary from the fight not only over corruption but for democracy, would be so devastated by this event. Take heart though for corruption exist everywhere. What is important for a truly democratic system to exist is for the checks and balances, that is the separation of powers, to not only be seen to be working but actually working. Witness here the beginnings of that process whereby the KPK acts. Congratulations Indonesia, you are well on your way and patience towards your final destiny what ever it may be as you have achieved so much in so little time what has taken other countries hundreds of years to achieve. Merdeka….

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