Mon, 13 Mar 2000

Reform the judiciary

Last week's court ruling acquitting businessman Djoko Tjandra of corruption charges in the high-profile Bank Bali scandal is a major setback for the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid. Here is a case which has consumed a great deal of national and international attention since coming to light in July. This case has all the indications of a conspiracy at the highest levels, involving top politicians of the time and affecting taxpayers' money as well as that of the International Monetary Fund. For the South Jakarta District Court to dismiss the case on the technical grounds that this is a commercial dispute and should be tried as a civil rather than a criminal case is an insult to the intelligence of anyone with a sense of justice.

The court ruling has sent a dire warning to the government and the police that other corruption cases they are currently pursuing may simply be dismissed if they fall into the hands of the wrong judges, like those who heard Djoko Tjandra's case. It has undermined the investigation and prosecution of all the other suspects in the Bank Bali scandal. But more than that, the ruling has put a large dent on the government's anticorruption campaign. It has sent the wrong signal to other alleged corrupters, including former president Soeharto and his children and cronies, who must now feel that they too will likely go free.

While Attorney General Marzuki Darusman must take some of the blame for the incompetence of his staff in preparing Djoko's case, there is no denying that the biggest problem lies with the judges at the South Jakarta District Court, who are completely insensitive to the feelings of the public. If there is any valuable lesson to learn from this legal travesty, it is that the case confirms our suspicion that reform has yet to touch the judiciary.

This is not the first time the judiciary has acted in ways that run counter to the reformist trend, even when one of the primary goals of reform is to return the rule of law, or in popular parlance the supremacy of law, to the country. On several occasions, including Djoko's case, it was the judiciary more than any other institution in the country that made a mockery of the law. The judiciary appears to be completely out of sync with the rest of the nation.

This should come as no surprise, however. The judiciary, particularly the courts, is still run mostly by people from the old regime. Like politicians of that recent bygone era, these judges were notorious for blatantly supporting the tyrannical New Order government. The judiciary is the last bastion of the Soeharto regime, and this goes a long way toward explaining why many of the efforts to prosecute corrupters and human rights abusers from that era have failed upon reaching the courts.

The judiciary is the only government branch that has yet to be reformed. The legislative branch was reformed through the country's first democratic general election in over 40 years in June. Consequently, the nation was given a government of the people, in the true sense of the word, with the election of President Abdurrahman in October.

The judiciary, however, has shown resistance to change. The Supreme Court last week presented a list of candidates to fill the upcoming vacancies on the court, including the position of chief justice. Not surprisingly, all of the presented candidates were sitting judges. A notable exclusion from the list was Benjamin Mangkoedilaga, a retired judge with an impeccably clean record and reputation who was also President Abdurrahman's choice for chief justice. It was with relief that we learned the government quickly came up last week with its own list of candidates, a list that includes not only Benjamin but also Todung Mulya Lubis, a lawyer who has consistently fought to clean up the judiciary from the outside.

President Abdurrahman has proven his ability to reform the powerful military by replacing its top leadership. His maneuvers on this front were accompanied by charges of meddling in the military's internal affairs, charges he dismissed. Now he is about to step on more toes by targeting the judiciary. The court's decision to acquit Djoko Tjandra has only served to illustrate where the President's next priority should lie now that he has brought the military under control. Without reforming the judiciary, all current investigations of corruption and human rights abuses are likely doomed to fail. And we can all forget about the rule of law.

Unlike the military, however, reforming the judiciary is outside the President's constitutional powers. Abdurrahman will not likely be able to effect judicial reform single-handedly the way he did with the military, even if he has the support of the public. He will need the help of the House of Representatives. In fact, it will take a joint effort on the part of the executive and legislative branches to bring the judiciary in line with the reformist trend. The ball is now in the House's court.