Fri, 26 Sep 2003

Indonesia badly needs witness protection law

Soeryo Winoto, Staff writer, The Jakarta Post,

The screening of unabashed physical abuse by senior students of the state-run Public Administration Institute (STPDN) against their juniors has become a nightmare for the institute, located in the West Java town, Sumedang.

The footage by private television station SCTV has apparently provoked anger among the public, most of whom regard what the senior students did as barbaric.

As the top official responsible for what has happened at the institute, Minister of Home Affairs Hari Sabarno has reacted to the screening from a different perspective. He is uneasy about the footage and plans to report the screening of the violence to the Press Council. He said SCTV had violated press ethics by airing something that could provoke public anger or fear.

Hari's move may well trigger a debate on the meaning of investigative reporting carried out by SCTV, which is trying to fulfill the right of the public to the truth over the controversial death of STPDN junior student Wahyu Hidayat.

Meanwhile, the snowball keeps rolling. Head of the institute Sutrisno has been fired, and more (senior) students are now being questioned as suspects in the death of Wahyu and in the physical abuse of other junior students.

The institute has a black mark with regard to three students, including Wahyu, who died during what their seniors call "regular training," since the institute's establishment 11 years ago.

Among the searching questions that demand honest replies from both STPDN management and Hari Sabarno's office are: How could such violence at the STPDN campus -- as shown by SCTV -- have been kept secret for so long?

A possible answer is that nobody had the courage to report what had been happening at the institute for fear of their own safety.

It is interesting to note that Inu Kencana Syafi'i, an STPDN lecturer, cried out for protection after he tried to report the irregularities carried out by (several or many) of his students. He is accused of distributing the footage to the television station.

Inu visited the House of Representatives on Tuesday to seek protection after he had been to Sumedang Police for similar reasons, following death threats he had received via the telephone and cell phone messaging service (SMS) for his action in reporting the violence within the institute.

Witness protection is a novelty within our current judicial system, despite the skepticism of some that the law -- like other existing legislation -- would properly be enforced.

There is no clear legal mechanism to protect those who report criminal action, fraud, corruption or violations of human rights. What the police and the House are doing for Inu is merely a specific response to Inu's personal request.

In practice, no one can guarantee the safety of a witness due to the absence of law to protect them.

Those affected by negative reports -- due to their alleged criminality or corruption -- usually defend themselves by demanding that an initial report be submitted with legally admissible evidence. Unfortunately, the police usually fail to use such a report as a starting point for their investigations, due to the absence of evidence.

The case of Endin Wahyudin, who reported alleged corruption by three Supreme Court justices Supraptini Sutarto, Marnis Kahar and Yahya Harahap, is a good example.

Endin, a middleman, said that the three officials had received a total of Rp 196 million from him for "helping" him to process a civil case at the Supreme Court.

The district court, which handled the resultant bribery case, charged Endin with defamation for reporting bribery involving the three Supreme Court justices, and the judges sentenced him to three months in jail, suspended for six months in September 2001. The court then made no further investigation of the Supreme Court justices, arguing that there was no evidence, instead of using Endin's report as an initial step to investigate the bribery allegations, as requested by the Joint Team for Corruption Eradication (TGPTPK).

The case of prosecutor Kito Irkhamni, who was sentenced to 23 days for fraud, was another anomaly in our legal system. Kito was indicted after he testified over the alleged illegal ownership of a luxury house in Cinere, South Jakarta, by Attorney General MA Rachman.

Interesting in this case were statements by Hendardi, chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association. He said that the messages emanating from Endin's and Kito's cases were, "anyone who tries to expose corruption must be ready to become an Endin or Kito."

Article 31 of Law No. 31/1999 protects witnesses from being identified. Therefore, those related to the case must conceal witnesses' names or addresses.

However, the article can no longer meet the need for protection, given the allegations of human rights violations in East Timor and other criminal and corruption cases involving people like Inu, Endin and Kito.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri approved government regulations on the protection of witnesses and victims of human right violations merely to accommodate political pressure ahead of the trial of senior Indonesian Military officers charged with rights violations in East Timor.

In response to public demand, the House of Representatives initiated the drafting of witness protection legislation last year. According to the draft, a witness who is under serious threat is allowed to testify directly via telecommunications media, which means that the testimony can be given outside the court room.

However, the draft has remained untouched since then. Chairman of Commission II at the House said early in April this year that the commission would discuss the draft by the end of April. But the draft remains a draft.

It is not clear why the House has yet to accord witness and victim protection issues top priority, given that they are no less important than other pieces of legislation that have a political impact.

It is now obvious that the absence of legislation to protect witnesses and victims of criminal acts or corruption proves the government's lack of commitment to encouraging people to report such irregularities. There are times when big cases end up in court after reports from a passerby.

If our legal system already had law to protect witnesses and victims, the violence claimed to be "traditional" at the STPDN campus could have been stopped some years ago. If a witness and victim protection law had already been in existence, Inu would not have needed to seek protection from the National Police following the death threats he received after reporting the long- established culture of violence at the campus.

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