HOTMAN PARIS HUTAPEA is, by his own reckoning, the freest lawyer in Indonesia.
In a country where bribes play an integral part in the legal system, where attorneys and judges usually hide part of their wealth to deflect unwanted attention, Mr. Hutapea has never denied gaming the system. On the contrary, he has reveled in his success by wearing fat diamond rings and carrying, until laws changed a couple of years ago, a gun in a hip holster. His office buildings here are adorned with signs that scream in big, bold letters: HOTMAN PARIS.
He is a regular on television gossip shows that link him to one starlet or another. Colleagues may prudently choose to drive conservative cars, to court at least. But Mr. Hutapea hops into his new red Ferrari California - the first one sold in Indonesia, for $630,000 - and parks it right in front of court buildings. To his critics, the car and its owner are a prime symbol of the cancer infecting the legal system; to Mr. Hutapea, the Ferrari amounts to an honest acknowledgment of the system’s imperfections.
“If I say I’m a clean lawyer, I’ll be a hypocrite, that’s all I can say,” he said. “And if other lawyers say they are clean, they will go to jail, they’ll go to hell.”
Not surprisingly, some rival lawyers and watchdog groups have pointed fingers at Mr. Hutapea as the Indonesian government has stepped up efforts to clean up the legal system and rid it of the so-called judicial mafia. In a byzantine world populated by corrupt officials and middlemen, money is often funneled to prosecutors and judges to reduce a charge or tip a verdict.
Asked whether he had ever given money to prosecutors or judges, Mr. Hutapea answered: “I cannot comment on that. I don’t want to comment on that because all I’m saying is that there is no lawyer on earth who is clean. That’s all I can say. I think you know how to make a conclusion from that.”
To him, there is no sin greater than hypocrisy. And charges of hypocrisy lie at the heart of a long-running feud that offers a peek into Indonesia’s complicated jurisprudence. The quarrel has pitted him against Todung Mulya Lubis, another high-profile lawyer but one with impeccable credentials: a critic of Suharto, the longtime autocrat; a holder of Master of Law degrees from Harvard and Berkeley; a supporter of many human rights organizations and the chairman of Transparency International’s office in Indonesia.
The feud, Mr. Lubis said in a brief conversation last month, represented a struggle between “the dark knight” and “the white knight.” But things are never that clear-cut in Indonesia. Mr. Lubis was disbarred for life by one bar association and suspended by another association he had helped found.
Mr. Hutapea, meanwhile, has never received the gentlest slap on the wrist.
On a recent morning, Mr. Hutapea, 50, sat down for an interview at his law office, inside a large meeting room with walls blanketed by framed newspaper articles featuring him. He brought out several photo albums showing him attending weddings and other social events with his top clients, mostly ethnic Chinese Indonesians who own many of Indonesia’s biggest conglomerates. Nothing from his early life had prepared him for this one. He grew up in a village in Sumatra in a Protestant family of 10 children; his father ran a local bus business.
THEY were Bataks, an ethnic group famous in Indonesia for giving their children random names. A brother was named Washington, after the American president.
Also known for their feistiness and argumentation skills, Bataks - including Mr. Hutapea’s rival, Mr. Lubis - are heavily represented among the nation’s top lawyers. Mr. Hutapea whizzed through law school in Bandung, in Java, before making it here to the capital.
He served a one-year stint at Indonesia’s central bank, which recruited top university graduates. To hear him tell it, the detour set him on the right path.
“After one year there, I realized that it was impossible to get rich there,” he said.
He looked at the cars driven by colleagues 20 years older. “Come on, 20 years, and still using a Kijang,” he said, referring to a Toyota minivan that is a symbol of Indonesia’s aspiring middle class.
He jumped to a top law firm here, specializing in international corporate law. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, he became the nation’s most sought-after attorney by companies trying to fend off creditors.
But it was after the fall of Suharto in 1998, in the newly democratic Indonesia, that Mr. Hutapea started his own practice. He seized on an unfettered news media’s fascination with new wealth and celebrities. He hired popular actresses as personal assistants and featured them prominently in court. He represented celebrities in trials pro bono.
Still, he insisted he worked hard for his success. “Who opens the office every morning?” he asked, calling a young lawyer into the meeting room.
“You, sir,” the young man answered.
“When all the lawyers are still holding their mistresses or wives, I’m already working,” Mr. Hutapea said.
Not that he seems to have anything against mistresses. He is a “very good father,” said Mr. Hutapea, who has three children. “Relatively good husband,” he added, repeating a punch line he has often used in interviews.
But Mr. Hutapea turned angry when the subject turned to his battle with Mr. Lubis.
Their fight stemmed from a case in 2006 when they represented opposing sides in a corporate trial. Mr. Lubis defended the Salim Group, the conglomerate most closely associated with Suharto, which was being sued by Mr. Hutapea’s client, another conglomerate named Makindo.
BUT until 2004, Mr. Lubis had led a government investigation into the Salim Group and other companies that, hit hard by the Asian financial crisis, were unable to repay their government debts. So Mr. Hutapea accused Mr. Lubis of a conflict of interest.
In 2008, a bar association permanently disbarred Mr. Lubis, who then helped establish another association that suspended him for six weeks but then allowed him to resume his practice.
In an interview last week, Mr. Lubis, 60, said he had complied with a government agreement to wait two years until he represented any of the companies in the audit he had led.
“I play by the rules,” he said, adding that in his 36-year career he had never bribed the police, prosecutors or judges. He said he had always fought for human rights and against corruption by pushing the government to establish the highly respected Corruption Eradication Commission. “Let the record speak for itself.”
Mr. Hutapea accused his rival of hypocrisy. “You cannot be an activist while handling all these big conglomerates,” he said, leaping up and adding: “One of his legs is in hell and the other one is in heaven.”
Mr. Lubis said he had “no hatred” for Mr. Hutapea and that this “chapter is closed.”
Mr. Hutapea was not letting go just yet, though. If Mr. Lubis agrees to a public debate, he said, “I will give him one of my big diamond rings.”
As the interview neared its end, Mr. Hutapea began to relax. At 2 p.m., a court was scheduled to deliver the verdict on a big case, which, he said, happened to be “purely clean.” So he would let an associate appear in court instead of going himself for that final extra push.
“It’s clean,” he said, “because, first, my client is very stingy, and also he has a very strong case. So no need.”
Under different circumstances, he said, “I will be there today, you know, to make sure the decision is right.”