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.
Under mounting public pressure, Yudhoyono finally stepped in, calling for an investigation into what he called the “legal mafia,” a reference to the police, attorney general’s office and the courts — all of which form a powerful network that the public perceives as wildly corrupt.
Yudhoyono on Thursday then called for the resignations of the men named in the recordings, Deputy Attorney General Abdul Hakim Ritonga and Police Commissioner General Susno Duadji. A third man, the brother of the fugitive businessman, was detained.
But some reformers worry Yudhoyono’s show of force might not be enough. Lawmakers, many of whom still view the KPK as a threat, came to the defense of both Ritonga and Duadji on Friday. Both men, defying the president, claimed their resignations are only temporary.
Duadji confidently likened the battle between the KPK and the police to a fight between a gecko and a crocodile, further riling the public’s anger.
The scandal has put into stark relief just how far Yudhoyono’s corruption fight still has to go and analysts say that his second term will now be partly defined by whether or not he can follow through on his promise to overhaul the country’s justice system.
“Indonesia is now in a critical condition and the rule of law is on the brink of collapse,” Basari, who is helping to defend Hamzah and Bibit, said. “This is the moment where the country needs to do a total institutional reform of the justice system. And the role of the president in this reform will be very important. This is a war against the judicial mafia and there is still a long way to go.”