Sat, 03 Apr 2004


On judicial reform

From a certain point of view, the action taken by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights last week to transfer its powers over judicial administrative and financial affairs to the Supreme Court is unquestionably a step in the right direction.

Until the ministry's announcement of the action last week, the administering of justice in this country was executed by a judicial apparatus that had for decades prevailed under a system that could only be called peculiar in any democracy. Administrative matters such as the appointment, promotion and remuneration of judges fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, while the Supreme Court took responsibility over the actual dispensing of justice.

Quite naturally, under such a system in which a Cabinet minister was in firm control of the careers and personal welfare of judges, the government could steer the course of justice to fit its own interests, although in theory judges remained free to make their decisions in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. Which, of course, was precisely why this unconventional system was introduced, in a variety of forms, under the authoritarian regimes of president Sukarno in the late 1950s and president Soeharto in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not since the early 1950s, during the brief period of Indonesia's experiment with parliamentary democracy -- the so-called "era of free fight liberalism" -- has the country known anything close to a truly independent judiciary.

Not, of course, that the system guaranteed that this would always work to the advantage of those in power. A few cases are known in which judges, including those of the Supreme Court, made decisions that could only have irked the authorities, but it was a judge with strong convictions indeed who could withstand the temptation of huge material rewards for compliance or the threat of penalties in the form of demotion or dismissal for dissent.

Clearly, the action taken by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights last week is a step in the right direction, in the sense that it helps to ensure the judiciary's independence from the government, in accordance with the trias politica principle of the separation of state powers.

Unfortunately, however, Indonesians have so far greeted this latest development in their country's judicial reform efforts with a good deal of skepticism. Few Indonesians believe that their courts will be free from interference by people with either money or power, or both, as long as judges continue to pronounce judgments that run counter to the common sense of the people. Although bribery, or just plain bias, is often difficult to prove in court, several cases reeking of blatant favoritism in the recent past have not helped the efforts to restore the public's confidence in the judiciary.

Although at present candidates for the Supreme Court must be screened by the House of Representatives for professionalism and a "clean" record before they take up their posts, this does not seem to be enough to guarantee that those who make the grade also pass the public's scrutiny.

The case of House of Representatives Speaker Akbar Tandjung, who was convicted by two lower courts for corruption and yet was acquitted on all charges by the Supreme Court, is a case in point. In other words, although ceding authority over the handling of all judicial matters to the Supreme Court is the right action to take, it is not enough to ensure that true justice can be achieved merely by this single step. The public demands accountability from a Supreme Court and from a legal system they can scrutinize.

It has not helped that this same skepticism over the ongoing judicial reforms is apparently shared by observers abroad. The lowly reputation of the Indonesian judiciary has been cited as one of the main reasons that foreign investors are staying away.

With the legislative elections now behind them, Indonesians can only hope that this matter of legal reform will get the priority treatment it deserves from the legislature. After all, a taintless professional judiciary is key to the country's resurgence.