Thu, 03 Jul 2003

Collapse of legal aid bureau leaves justice remote

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Nothing was as usual on Wednesday at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta), located at Jl. Mendut No. 1 in Central Jakarta, which used to be crowded with justice seekers and activists throughout the day.

"The LBH Jakarta has stopped its fortnightly meetings with those of us from various labor unions due to its financial situation," Wajis, chairman of the Federation of Metal, Electronic and Machinery Workers Unions, told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

He expressed fears that no other organization could replace the LBH Jakarta as an independent body providing legal aid, promoting the development of civil society, and pushing for law reform and democracy.

"I think in the near future the LBH Jakarta will also stop providing pro bono legal services," he added.

In December 2001, foreign donors stopped channeling funds to the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation (YLBHI), to which the LBH Jakarta is affiliated, after co-founder Adnan Buyung Nasution took over control. The noted lawyer drew fire from legal and human rights activists for defending military generals accused of involvement in the 1999 atrocities in East Timor.

Starved of funds, the YLBHI, which in its heyday was dubbed as "an engine of democracy", had to cut funding to its 14 branches, including the LBH Jakarta. The branches require a total of Rp 500 million (US$60,240) per month, but the foundation can now only raise Rp 35 million to help with costs.

In order to survive, the YLBHI cut the salaries of directors by 50 percent and staffers by 20 percent. As a result, many of its activists resigned.

The foundation has also given up on its other mission -- advocating a better Indonesia by scrutinizing state policies, holding discussions and seminars, and engaging in legal advocacy.

Instead, the YLBHI is now focused largely on its original function of providing legal assistance to the poor.

"But the LBH Jakarta can be considered a survivor because the number of people bringing their cases to us remains high," its director, Irianto Subiakto, told the Post, adding that his branch had dealt with over 500 clients during the December 2002-May 2003 period.

Starting July 1, only 10 legal staffers and seven employees of the original total of 27 continued to work. Of the others, three of them completed their contracts as senior legal staffers, three employees retired, and four others resigned.

To handle a backlog of thousands of cases since 1998, according to Irianto, the LBH Jakarta planned to recruit volunteers to help provide free legal aid.

For this purpose, it has also decided to institute survival measures, including laying off some workers and selling assets, Irianto said, noting that most of those seeking legal assistance were poor people, who could not even afford to pay a Rp 10,000 administration fee.

"We have even come up with the idea of taking part in various television quizzes that offer big prizes, and to sell stickers," said Irianto, who will leave his post in August.

He said the LBH Jakarta had been using up its reserves, which would only cover its operating costs until September.

Irianto called for non-binding donations for his branch, saying that donors could channel their donations through the Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) branch of Bank Mandiri, account number 123-00-0300674-1.