Acid attack verdict seen as Indonesia going soft on graft

Controversial conviction of junior policemen stokes worry Jokowi govt is faltering in corruption fight

Mr Novel Baswedan, a senior graft investigator, was partially blinded in an acid attack in April 2017.
Mr Novel Baswedan, a senior graft investigator, was partially blinded in an acid attack in April 2017.

When Indonesia's President Joko Widodo was first campaigning for the post in 2014, he unveiled a list of nine objectives he hoped to achieve during his tenure.

The fourth point of his "Nawa Cita" - Sanskrit for nine ideals - was a vow to clean up the criminal justice system.

"We will reject a weak state by reforming the system and enforcing the law that is free of corruption and built on dignity and trust," the declaration read.

But a controversial conviction last week of a pair of junior police officers accused of dousing a top corruption investigator with acid has added to worries that Mr Joko's administration has struggled to rein in rampant graft.

Last Thursday, a Jakarta court found constables Ronny Bugis and Rahmat Kadir Mahulette guilty of the April 11, 2017, acid attack that partially blinded Mr Novel Baswedan, a senior investigator with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). The pair were sentenced to 18 months and two years in jail, respectively.

Police had been criticised for slow progress on the case.

A police team was formed in January last year to investigate the attack, but their efforts came to naught. Mr Joko then ordered that a new police chief, appointed in November, solve the case by the end of the year.

When Mr Novel was attacked, he had been leading a KPK probe into the 2.6 trillion rupiah (S$246 million) scam linked to the roll-out of new ID cards.

The investigation resulted in the 2018 conviction of sitting Speaker Setya Novanto, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Following the verdict last Thursday, Mr Novel told The Sunday Times that he was worried for his safety. He repeated his assertion that the guilty men were fall guys and the true culprits behind his attack were still at large.

"The government of Indonesia is not in favour of fighting corruption," he said. "It's difficult to say whether I or my colleagues will be able to work safely after this incident."

GOING OFF COURSE

The Novel Baswedan case is confirmation that the government is less willing to uphold its promise in fighting corruption. The future of the Corruption Eradication Commission has been severely affected by the decision to revise the law governing it.

MR ADNAN TOPAN HUSODO, coordinator for non-governmental organisation Indonesia Corruption Watch, referring to the verdict of the acid attack case.

 
 
 

The verdict came just months after legislation last year that severely curtailed the KPK's powers to conduct independent investigations in secret.

The new law also ended the body's civilian leadership and placed it under the control of the police, who used to be frequent targets of KPK investigations.

For Mr Joko, who has made faster economic growth the centrepiece of his second and final term, a softer touch on corruption risks backfiring, said analyst Ben Bland, director of the South-east Asia Programme at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. "Increasingly, Jokowi's government seems to see the anti-corruption fight as an impediment to the President's ambitions for promoting investment and economic growth," Mr Bland said, referring to the President's ubiquitous nickname.

Worries of being tarred with corruption charges have made some public officials wary of promoting infrastructure initiatives, said Mr Bland, author of the upcoming book, Man Of Contradictions: Joko Widodo And The Struggle To Remake Indonesia.

However, by paring back the KPK's authority and crimping its independence, Mr Joko risks doing longer-term damage, Mr Bland said.

"The weakening of the KPK and the rollback of the wider campaign against graft are likely to damage the long-term business environment, rather than improve it."

While Indonesia has made progress in tackling graft under Mr Joko, it still ranks poorly on Transparency International's 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, alongside China and Turkey.

"The Novel Baswedan case is confirmation that the government is less willing to uphold its promise in fighting corruption," said Mr Adnan Topan Husodo, coordinator for non-governmental organisation Indonesia Corruption Watch. "The future of KPK has been severely affected by the decision to revise the law governing it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2020, with the headline 'Acid attack verdict seen as Indonesia going soft on graft'. Print Edition | Subscribe