Indonesia’s Mr Teflon goes free again
House of Representatives Speaker Setya Novanto appears to have slipped the legal noose in the country's largest ever parliamentary corruption scandal
Thanks to the vagaries of the Indonesian court system, Golkar Party chairman and House of Representatives Speaker Setya Novanto has momentarily managed to sidestep his indictment on charges of orchestrating Parliament’s most egregious ever corruption case.
Whether he retains control of the country’s second biggest party, however, is another matter with other Golkar leaders – including former allies — saying he will have to go if the party is to gather any momentum ahead of the 2019 legislative elections.
Ruling on a pre-trial motion Novanto filed to dismiss his suspect status in the South Jakarta District Court, a lone judge last week found four grounds for upholding his appeal, which compels the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) to end its investigation prematurely.
The KPK can still renew the indictment, based on new evidence which they already appear to have. But the case serves as another reminder that Indonesia has a long way to go before the politically pliable judiciary earns the public trust.
“Irregularities in the proceedings (and) the decision reached conveys the message that judicial reform has still to be accomplished,” says Ahmad Fikri Assegaf, chairman of the Association of University of Indonesia Faculty of Law Alumni, who called on the Supreme Court to enforce limitations on the scope of pre-trial motions.
Novanto was a key figure in Golkar joining President Joko Widodo’s then-struggling minority coalition in late 2014 after recalcitrant tycoon Aburizal Bakrie lost his grip on the party’s leadership in the aftermath of the legislative and presidential elections.
But last July, Novanto was indicted by the KPK for his alleged involvement in a 5.9 trillion rupiah (US$172 million) electronic identity card scandal, the scope of which shocked even those hardened to Indonesia’s endemic corruption.
It was not the first time Novanto had been implicated but not convicted for corrupt dealings, stretching from the Bank Bali bailout rip-off in 1999 to his alleged efforts last year to arm-twist the Freeport Indonesia mining company into parting with some of its shares.
On each occasion, Novanto has walked away unscathed. The alleged offense was so blatant this time that lawyers and politicians, including those closest to him, were convinced his day of reckoning had finally arrived.
But Novanto’s long-tested Teflon coat, stitched together by patronage politics, shared personal business interests and misplaced loyalties, is made of stronger stuff than that.
Indeed, already inured to such setbacks, anti-graft activists showed little surprise at last week’s verdict. After refusing to hear important new evidence and cherry-picking other testimony, judge Cepi Iskander claimed the KPK did not have concrete proof of Novanto’s guilt and that it had violated its own procedures.
The pre-trial motion became a favored legal maneuver after the same court cleared deputy police chief General Budi Gunawan, a close associate of ruling Indonesian Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, of corruption charges in February 2015.
Since then, former Makassar city mayor Ilham Arief Sirajuddin and ex-taxation director general Hadi Poernomo have had their KPK charges dismissed in the same manner, though Sirajuddin was later re-indicted and sentenced to four years in jail for bribery.
In Novanto’s case, it is not yet all cut and dried either. “The decision … does not change the KPK’s authority to make him a suspect again,” says Assegaf. “It provides the KPK with the opportunity to improve and reorganize its future strategies.”
One of Indonesia’s most prominent anti-corruption campaigners, the Cornell University-educated lawyer rejected Iskander’s assertion that Novanto should not have been indicted until the KPK had concluded its investigation.
He pointed to a Supreme Court regulation, ignored in other cases as well, that says the purpose of a pre-trial hearing is only to determine whether the legal requirements of the investigation process have been satisfied, not to rule on the substance of the case.
He and other legal experts say the judge also left an opening for the KPK by inexplicably ruling it could not present the same evidence that had been used to successfully prosecute two senior Home Affairs Ministry officials implicated in the same case.
Why it wasn’t deemed admissible for Novanto’s case is legally a mystery. For most lawyers, if the two pieces of evidence needed for an indictment had previously been used to gain a conviction, then it provides a reasonable presumption that a crime had been committed.
As it was, Iskander even refused to hear a new piece of evidence, a tape recording apparently incriminating Novanto in a conspiracy where the budget of the tainted identity card project was front-loaded and the windfall shared among political parties and scores of individuals alike.
Meanwhile, blithely ignoring the fact that the KPK is Indonesia’s most popular and trusted institution, parliamentarians have continued with their efforts to scrap its enforcement powers and turn it into a toothless coordinating body.
The KPK commissioners have refused to attend any of the hearings of a special investigation committee until the Constitutional Court rules on a request for a judicial review into whether Parliament has the authority to conduct an inquiry into a government institution.
The House launched the inquiry after the KPK refused demands for it to hand over copies of testimony by People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) lawmaker Miryam Haryani, a key witness in the scandal which has implicated at least 50 legislators.
The KPK claims senior politicians pressured Haryani to recant the testimony she was to give at the trial of the two Home Affairs bureaucrats, who were recently jailed for seven and five years respectively for their role in the scandal.
Widodo’s own PDI-P and five other ruling coalition partners — Golkar, Hanura, the United Development, National Democrat and National Mandate parties – all allegedly benefited from the corruption.
The National Awakening Party is the sole coalition party not on the inquiry panel, while ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s centrist Democrat Party joined a walk out when the action was approved at a plenary session last April.
Former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party and the Justice and Prosperity Party, its partner in the opposition, have both excluded themselves from the inquiry, apparently worried it will cost them votes in 2019.
For Golkar, unable to get beyond 14.5% of the vote in the past two national elections, the damage might already have been done — whether Novanto is replaced or not.
As for Novanto, the Golkar leader appears to have made a remarkable recovery from a supposed stress-related heart ailment that kept him conveniently in hospital for the past fortnight and out of reach of KPK investigators.
When a senior government minister visited him soon after the court verdict in his favor was announced to suggest he might still consider stepping down, the oxygen mask and intravenous tubes he was wearing in media pictures had magically disappeared.