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Indonesia's court scandal dragging the nation down
Publication Date : 09-10-2013
Surely, this is as rock bottom as it can get: the chief justice of Indonesia's Constitutional Court charged with accepting a bribe for favourable judgments in two election disputes and, on top of all that, having to explain sex toys and drugs allegedly stashed in his office.
It goes way past the point where the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) can pat itself on the back for catching the biggest fish yet in the seemingly endless war on graft. This one was earning a salary of 1 billion rupiah (US$86,600) a year.
Even Indonesians numbed by the procession of thieving politicians and bureaucrats filing through the courts must now be wondering whether they are witnessing not only a failure of the rule of law, but a systematic collapse in public morality.
The stunning October 2 arrest of newly resigned Akil Mochtar has also raised questions about the integrity of previous court decisions, delivering the biggest blow ever to Indonesia's judiciary. More than that, it threatens the very foundations of Indonesia's fledgling democracy with only six months to the fourth reform-era parliamentary elections.
The bribery allegations revolve around Mochtar's handling of election disputes in Central Kalimantan's Gunung Mas district and in the Lebak district of western Java's Banten province, in which the Constitutional Court is the last resort.
But his alleged involvement in a similar unresolved case three years ago suggests a disturbing pattern of behaviour in a country which holds more than 100 often-raucous district and city elections a year.
"It's an absolute tragedy," sighs one Western legal expert with long experience in Indonesia. "It was the one institution that hadn't seemed to have gone off-track since the beginning of the reform era."
Appointed to the Constitutional Court as one of three parliamentary nominees in 2008, Mochtar, 52, was elected chief justice in early April, winning the votes of six of the other nine judges sitting on the country's highest bench.
He is the third jurist to head the court. Pioneering chief justice Jimly Asshidiqqie performed with considerable distinction, but it was under his successor Mohammad Mahfud that politics began to edge into the court's decisions.
In fact, it was also on Mahfud's watch that the integrity of the court - and the reputation of Mochtar himself - was called into question for the first time.
In February 2011, judge Arsyad Sanusi was fired after he and members of his family were accused of taking bribes in an appeal in 2008 against the election earlier that year of South Bengkulu regent Dirwan Mahmud.
Investigators had found that Sanusi's wife ran a catering firm from the family home which supplied food to the court, that his lawyer daughter handled many of the cases and that members of the judge's staff were all provided with houses.
The whistle-blower in that affair, constitutional lawyer Refly Harun, also claimed that in 2010 Mochtar had sought 3 billion rupiah to decide favourably in a case involving newly elected Simalungun, North Sumatra, regent Jopinus Ramli Saragih who was facing a challenge to his election victory from three losing candidates. He reportedly told Harun that Mochtar had finally settled for 1 billion rupiah.
Then Chief Justice Mahfud, a friend of Mochtar's from their days working together as Golkar lawmakers on the parliamentary legal commission, took the unusual step of challenging Harun to form a team to prove the charges.
Tempo magazine editor Bambang Harymurti was chosen for the panel, along with prominent lawyers Bambang Widjojanto, one of the five current KPK commissioners, Buyung Adnan Nasution, and law professor Saldi Isra.
"We had three witnesses who saw the whole process," Harymurti recalls. "But we were not part of the judiciary and all we could do was try to convince Mahfud that he had to report the case to the KPK."
Instead, the chief justice made their report public, scaring the witnesses so badly they all reneged on what had been confidential testimony.
More than that, Mahfud called Mochtar his "right-hand man" and said he had "100 per cent confidence" in him. Mochtar, for his part, threatened to sue Harun for slander in another demonstration of the gall that goes with corruption in Indonesia.
"When I was doing that investigation, my whole thinking about the Constitutional Court changed a lot," says Harymurti, clearly disillusioned by the experience. "The clean guys there just didn't want to rock the boat."
Originally, it was the independent Judicial Commission that was tasked with disciplining the two highest courts. When that was appealed in 2004, the Constitutional Court upheld the ruling for the Supreme Court but it then held that such a decision was unconstitutional for itself.
Established in 2003 under a 2001 amendment to the 1945 Constitution, the Constitutional Court took over duties previously performed by the Supreme Court.
Of the nine members of the Constitutional Court, three each were chosen from the Supreme Court, Parliament and the Government. It was seen as a compromise, stripping away some of the prevailing presidential authority over judicial appointments.
But that meant the Constitutional Court became a lot more political than what is traditionally a watchdog of wise men, with candidates chosen by selection committees using what are euphemistically called "fit and proper tests".
"Fit and proper" clearly means different things to different people, particularly politicians who have become famously adept at turning anything that requires an appointment into a money-making venture.