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Indonesia: Corruption junction

A corruption scandal hits — you guessed it — the country's anti-corruption commission.

Two men walk past a banner displayed by the Anti-Corruption Agency along a street in Jakarta Dec. 12, 2008. The banner reads "Fight Corruption." When Indonesia's president delivered his independence day speech to parliament, stressing the need to eradicate corruption, it was clear to many onlookers that the biggest problem was staring him in the face. In Indonesia, members of parliament top the charts when it comes to corrupt practices. (Dadang Tri/Reuters)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Indonesian president’s campaign against corruption sputtered somewhat spectacularly this week when wiretap recordings, played live on Indonesian news channels, revealed an apparent conspiracy, hatched by top law enforcement officials, to discredit the much-revered Corruption Eradication Commission.

The scandal has thrown the president’s agenda for his second term, which started only a month ago, into a tailspin. Running on a platform of continuity — promising further economic reforms and a stepped-up fight against the country’s notorious corruption — the president is instead now embroiled in a battle between two powerful government agencies.

It is a battle riddled in graft and deceit and even murder that has demonstrated all too clearly how far Indonesia still has to go before it can shake off its reputation as one of the world’s most corrupt countries — a reputation sired under former strongman, Gen. Suharto.

The anticorruption commission, known as the KPK, was a symbol of success during President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first term. In its first five years, the KPK successfully prosecuted more than eighty cases, including several high profile ones involving legislators, well-connected businessmen, governors, and bankers. The KPK even prosecuted Yudhoyono’s son’s father-in-law during an election season, a move that seemed to prove the days of infallibility were near over.

Now, however, this most recent scandal, coupled with a murder investigation into the KPK’s former chief, has all but crippled the organization. Several lawmakers even began calling for its dissolution.

The commission’s investigative powers (it can wiretap without a warrant, among other things) has irked politicians and police alike. And so as the KPK turned its sights on the National Police several months ago, the National Police fought back, engaging a plan to undermine the institution, watchdog groups said.

“This is a systematic attempt by some groups to destroy the KPK, namely, law enforcement officers, business groups and executives,” said Taufik Basari, a human rights lawyer.

The KPK and the police skirmished for months before the police finally arrested two KPK deputy commissioners, Chandra Hamzah and Bibit Riyanto, last week, accusing them of accepting a bribe from a businessman who is under investigation for corruption in return for letting him flee the country before his trial.

Yudhoyono, seemingly not sensing the seriousness of the situation, refused to intervene until defense attorneys for Hamzah and Bibit played the wiretap recordings in court, revealing an intricate plan to frame, and even murder, them. At one point in the recordings, an unidentified man threatens to kill Hamzah after his arrest, claiming to have connections inside the prison system.

Indonesians around the country erupted in protest, calling for the immediate release of the corruption fighters. A Facebook group supporting the KPK swelled to more than half a million, highlighting the public’s continuing frustration with Indonesia’s slow pace of reform. Some analysts have compared the public outcry to the protests of the late 1990s that eventually forced Suharto to resign.