JAKARTA - Indonesia's anti-corruption drive has seen unprecedented numbers of politicians and high-ranking government officials convicted in recent months. The resurgent Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has transfixed the nation's public as it aggressively pursues powerful political figures, and even plans to take on the House of Representatives.
The man behind the anti-graft campaign, KPK chairman Antasari Azhar, has in the past eight months overseen arrests on corruption charges of five members of parliament, a former national police chief and ambassador to Malaysia, a senior government prosecutor, and three central bank officials, including the governor. Several of those suspects have already been convicted in the KPK's special Corrupt Crimes Court (CCC).
Others could soon be behind bars. Former senior Foreign Ministry official and ambassador to Singapore, Slamet Hidayat, is standing trial for allegedly embezzling Rp 8.4 billion (US$900,000) from an embassy fund earmarked for renovating facilities and housing. Current ambassador to the US and former Foreign Ministry secretary-general Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat has been called as a witness and local press reports indicate he may be indicted as a suspect.
Endemic corruption has long dragged on Indonesia's economic development and taken a heavy toll on foreign investor confidence. Indonesia ranked 143 out of 179 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perception Index, while the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy ranked Indonesia third, trailing only the Philippines and Thailand in a survey of Asia's most corrupt economies. Indonesia slipped two spots down to 129 in the World Bank's most recent "ease of doing business" survey.
The quasi-independent KPK was established in late 2003 and tasked with restoring investor confidence in the rule of law by cleaning up the country's notoriously rampant graft levels. The 550-member body, which boasts 30 police, 25 prosecutors, 50 investigators and a special court, has unusually wide-ranging powers, ranging from naming corruption suspects, making arrests and summoning political office holders and high-ranking officials to testify in cases.
The KPK also has the authority to take over cases that have stalled with the police or state prosecutor's office and can ask the president to suspend officials under investigation to facilitate prosecution and access their personal bank accounts. Under Azhar's nine-month tenure, the KPK has captured the national imagination through its pursuit of some of the country's most powerful political figures.
Since December, the body has recovered over Rp 400 billion of pilfered state funds. Last month it even launched a preliminary investigation into the judiciary's alleged misuse of court fees. Since its inception in 2004, the CCC has reached verdicts quicker and with a higher conviction rate and longer sentences than the normal court system, which is known among investors for is meandering ways and susceptibility to corruption and political interference.
Politics of corruption
At the same time, the KPK's intensified prosecutions have coincided with a dip in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's popularity ahead of next year's parliamentary and presidential elections. Perceived endemic official corruption ranks among voters' top gripes, according to opinion polls.
Azhar is well known for his strong independent streak and plays up his drive for greater official transparency and justice with flair. During a recent presentation at Indonesia's embassy in Singapore, he proudly announced his Rp 62 million annual salary - before 35% government taxes are paid, he reminded the audience.
Under Azhar's predecessor, Taufiequrachman Ruki, the KPK came under heavy criticism for being understaffed, underfinanced and disproportionately netting opposition politicians when it did act. For instance, the 2007 arrest and imprisonment of Widjanakaro Puspoyo, chairman of the National Logistic Agency (Bulog), on corruption charges led to opposition recriminations of a political witch-hunt.
Puspoyo was a card-carrying member of the main opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the day after he was charged he was replaced by Mustafa Abu Bakar, a prominent member of the military-linked Golkar party, which is now strongly represented inside Yudhoyono's ruling coalition.
Similar protests were lodged last year when the KPK detained Suwarna Abdul Fatah, a PDI-P politician and governor of East Kalimantan, for allegedly illegally granting a land-concession permit to a private company to clear more than a million hectares of state land for an oil-palm project. The PDI-P-led opposition claimed his detention while still on trial represented a double standard, as Golkar politician, Nurdin Halid, was left free during his KPK-led trial on charges of misappropriating funds.
Azhar's stewardship, too, has been dogged by controversy, particularly for its investigative and prosecutorial methods. The KPK has used evidence collected from wire-tapping telephones, which is legally permissible under the 2002 KPK law, to make certain high profile arrests. These include the charges successfully brought against former Attorney General Urip Tri Gunawan, who was caught on the telephone accepting $660,000 in bribes from a businesswoman attempting to end an investigation into a misappropriation of Bank Indonesia (BI) liquidity support funds.
According to case documents, Gunawan told the businesswoman on the phone that a decision in BI's favor was secured, and that his verdict would say, "After investigating for so long, there is no evidence of any violations of the law." Gunawan was sentenced on September 4 to a 20-year jail term, while the businesswoman received five years behind bars. Now the KPK has hinted it might widen the bribery case investigation to include attorney general office investigators.
Other criticism has surrounded the KPK's use of humiliation tactics against corruption suspects, including a requirement they wear a special prisoner uniform and have their hands cuffed during prosecution or when appearing in KPK courts. The purpose of the garb, Azhar says, is to uphold accepted norms of "equality before the law" and supporters of the policy hope the public loss of face will deter other potential corruptors. Critics meanwhile say the dress code violates universal innocent until proven guilty standards.
In an interview with Asia Times Online, Azhar brushed the criticisms aside, arguing that he is fighting to uproot a deep-seated culture of corruption. The KPK is now working to establish regional CCCs that will allow for faster investigations and prosecutions at the provincial level. Currently, provincial corruption cases are handled either through the Jakarta court or non-specialized regional courts, Azhar said.
He also said the KPK plans to launch a national public awareness campaign aimed at educating the public about what constitutes corruption, its impacts, and the possible punishments for complicity. The KPK currently works with anti-corruption bodies in 114 different countries to share information and ways to fight against graft, according to Azhar.
After launching investigations into the Finance, Home Affairs, Foreign, Agriculture and Forestry ministries, state-owned television station TVRI and the state-run postal service, the KPK has recently turned its investigative attentions towards the powerful House of Representatives. In that direction, KPK acting secretary-general Syamsa Adi Sasmita was present at a national budget discussion meeting in parliament last month.
The KPK's parliamentary scrutiny is exceptional considering the quasi-independent body's chairman is currently selected by parliament. And there are indications that lawmakers aim to rein in the KPK's powers as more politicians both inside and outside the ruling coalition come under scrutiny.
The House Honorary Council's deputy chairman Gayus Lumbun recently said that the parliamentary commission that oversees laws and human rights would enforce strict controls in monitoring the KPK's work mechanisms, including its use of phone-tapping. In April the local press reported that a House commission warned the KPK against "criminalizing" lawmakers and in a closed-door meeting the agency's leaders were asked to explain the KPK's recent arrests of legislators implicated in corruption cases.
The arrests, they complained, were too publicly visible, involving in certain instances car chases and entrapment schemes in front of the media, according to the reports. "Why must the KPK go after the legislator and not members of the executive power?" asked commission chairman and PDI-P politician Trimedya Panjaitan, according to news reports. "The arrests can be misleading to the general public who doesn't understand law and might think the House is full of criminals."
More significantly, Yudhoyono's cabinet last month introduced a provisional bill to the House aimed at outlining the CCC's future mandate but which some legal experts fear will compromise the court's future independence and the sustainability of the KPK's current vigorous anti-corruption drive.
In particular, ministers introduced language which would make the chief justice of the Supreme Court ultimately responsible for appointing the CCC's judges and abandon the practice of using ad hoc judges, which have so far shown greater independence than career judges. In response to a legal challenge to the KPK's constitutionality, a recent Constitution Court decision required that parliament must pass a new stand-alone law on the CCC by December 2009.
Previously a director at South Jakarta's Attorney General's Office, Azhar has run up against several ex-colleagues in his investigations. He emphasized during his interview with ATol that the KPK does not compete with the police or the attorney general's office, but rather "acts as a trigger for other bodies to fight corruption in the country".
Nonetheless, critics contend that the KPK has at times been selective in its prosecutions and has intentionally let influential corruptors walk free. National University of Singapore sociology associate professor and Indonesian political commentator Vedi Hadiz notes for example that former president Suharto and his famously graft-ridden cronies have oddly eluded KPK trial and conviction.
The KPK also showed what some viewed as a lack of impartiality when it failed to prosecute two members of Yudhoyono's cabinet - National Development Planning Minister Paskah Suzetta and Forestry Minister Malem Sambat Kaban - who also allegedly took bribes in the BI case. Yudhoyono held a controversial closed meeting with the two ministers after they were first implicated and the KPK later cited lack of evidence for letting them off the hook.
At the recent trial of former BI governor Burhanuddin Abdullah, two former deputy governors, Aulia Pohan and Anwar Nasution, were also implicated, with a former staff member at the BI's communication bureau, Asnar Ashari, testifying before the CCC that Rp 31.5 billion disbursements were made to members of the House of Representatives' Financial Commission with Pohan's consent.
Nasution was alleged to have ordered the destruction of documents concerning BI fund embezzlement. Both have denied the charges and neither were formally made suspects in the case.
Critics note that Aulia is the father-in-law of Yudhoyono's eldest son, Agus Yudhoyono, while Anwar is now head of the powerful government Audit Board. Azhar said that once a case is opened, the KPK cannot by law stop its investigations. "KPK is still looking for evidence. The cases will be wound up eventually if can find enough evidence," he said, referring to the two officials.
The KPK's latest test comes with the recent discovery of 400 travelers checks worth a total of Rp20 trillion which were allegedly received by a number of House members over a five year period spanning 1999-2004. Flagged by whistle-blower Agus Condro, a House representative with the opposition PDI-P, the checks are allegedly linked to the election of Miranda Gultom as BI senior deputy governor in June 2004.
Alleging that he was not the only lawmaker to receive money to vote for Gultom, Condro has implicated several other PDI-P members and has since been removed from the House and the party's list of candidates for next year's legislative election. Azhar told ATol that the KPK will soon open investigations into the senders, receivers and motives behind the checks.
"The KPK knows what it has to do," said Azhar. "We are working hard to create a clean government that all Indonesians can be proud of."Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at