Murky Indonesian cults in the spotlight after scandals

Pribadi being taken to police headquarters after his arrest last September for allegedly ordering the killing of two people.
Pribadi being taken to police headquarters after his arrest last September for allegedly ordering the killing of two people.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

JAKARTA • Despondent after losing a local election in Indonesia, Mr Abdul Junaidi was the perfect prey for a charismatic cult leader promising great wealth and political success.

Assured that he would see his money multiply, the sugarcane farmer handed over 200 million rupiah (S$21,000) to the sect. But his cash disappeared, his political career stalled, and the leader of the group was arrested, accused of murdering two people for threatening to unmask him.

"His promise was very tempting - that if I ran in elections, then I would win," the 50-year-old said.

The case is the latest example of a shadowy sect playing on the widespread belief in the supernatural in Indonesia. Cult-like groups have long existed across the vast Indonesian archipelago, which is home to hundreds of ethnic groups and where beliefs in local spirits and black magic are often fused with the dominant religion of Islam.

But in recent times, this belief in the occult has taken a dark turn, with several cases of sham cult leaders facing allegations ranging from murder to fraud to sexual assault.

The most high-profile has been the one that embroiled Mr Junaidi, who was among thousands persuaded to join a cult led by Taat Pribadi.

From former lawmakers to army generals to police officers, Pribadi drew a huge and influential following to his cult in Java, with members living in his palatial residence and nearby buildings.

He persuaded people to join the group by claiming he could bring them success - in Mr Junaidi's case, by helping him win another election to head a small district - and multiply money they gave him in an elaborate, supernatural ritual.

The case attracted huge attention when videos went viral of Pribadi dressed in flowing white robes performing a ritual that ended with him producing fistfuls of money.

Pribadi's cult, which had existed for about 15 years, eventually fell apart when he was arrested last September for allegedly ordering the murder of two people who had tried to unmask him as a fraud.

He is scheduled to stand trial for the murders, and police are also investigating fraud claims against him.

"I never got my original money back, and certainly did not see it multiply," Mr Junaidi said.

Pribadi's case followed that of another alleged sham cult leader, Gatot Brajamusti, who attracted followers - including high-profile female entertainers - by styling himself as an Islamic spiritual guru.

But he was arrested last August for allegedly sexually harassing his female followers and drug possession.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2017, with the headline 'Murky Indonesian cults in the spotlight after scandals'. Print Edition | Subscribe