Fri, 19 Mar 1999

Dazing antigraft drive

Many people have grown more and more impatient in watching the authorities' slow steps toward clean governance. And people always get hurt because of the way the government stubbornly defends its failures. This is especially true in the investigation into former president Soeharto's assets, which he allegedly amassed through abuses of power during his three decades of authoritarian rule.

In the provinces, people seem not to be so disturbed by Soeharto's alleged misdeeds because they are busy with antigraft campaigns. But their patience has been equally thinning.

The most recent case of public impatience took place in Ujungpandang, South Sulawesi, early this week. Hundreds of students and lecturers, who had closely watched the investigation and court hearings of a corruption case involving a director of a local cooperative, staged a demonstration against the provincial prosecutor's office because of its demand for the acquittal of the defendant. Nurdin Halid, who is a member of the House of Representatives, is standing trial on charges of embezzling Rp 115.77 billion (US$12 million) from the cooperative.

The protesters' actions may seem premature because the judge has not as yet handed down any verdict. But many people in the provincial capital city seem to have drawn their own conclusion of the case for no clear reason. Perhaps they are incensed by the fact that the defendant is a member of the government faction, Golkar, and that he has been a close associate of Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, Soeharto's youngest son who once held a monopoly on the clove trade.

All clove farmers were obliged to open accounts at the central cooperative, which acted as the sole buyer from village cooperatives in the provinces. Clove growers were also obliged to sell their produce to village cooperatives. The protesters' motivation is clear: they want to influence the court's ruling because they have lost trust in the judicial body. It is a common phenomenon in Indonesia today.

The case itself has caused confusion from the very beginning. In October, deputy attorney general for supervision, Jacob Rahim Saleh, said no evidence of criminal activity had been found in the case, but several days later his statement was boisterously denied by the chief of the provincial prosecutor's office, HM Gagoek Subayanto.

Attorney General Andi M. Ghalib later ordered Gagoek to seriously investigate the case. The suspect claimed Gagoek's initiative was politically motivated. To pressure the prosecution into a more serious probe, students started to hold rallies.

But their activities were too noisy for Gagoek's ears and he requested an early retirement, to start five months later. However, when his request was accepted by the attorney general, Gagoek expressed great shock. At the same time and for no clear reason, his spokesman was transferred to the faraway province of Irian Jaya in what could be described as nothing but a demotion. The two measures upset many law experts who saw them as efforts to discourage antigraft campaigns.

Earlier, Nurdin, the suspect, said he had affidavits by two cooperative officials saying they had bribed Gagoek on two separate occasions. Gagoek, he claimed, had been badly in need of money to finance the construction of his house in Jakarta and the wedding reception of his daughter.

He claimed the bribes were for Rp 50 million and 25 million. Nurdin made the statement while denying Gagoek's accusation that he had tried to bribe the prosecutor with Rp 1 billion (US$100,000) through two people in order to have the case dropped. Observers then questioned why Gagoek did not try to arrest those who arrived to deliver the Rp 1 billion.

Briefly speaking, the case is a dark picture of the country's fight against corruption. While Nurdin awaits his verdict and confrontation between the authorities and protesters continue, the final casualty will surely be the country's judicial institution, the image of which has been drastically tarnished.