A small agency battles Indonesia’s mighty corrupt

In 11 years,KPK has become an independent and successful institution,with guilty verdicts in all the 236 cases it has fought. In sparing no one,it has only one thing going for it — public support

Written by Reuters | Jakarta | Published:November 19, 2013 3:03 am

Indonesia’s Inspector General of Police had just withstood eight hours of interrogation on the night of October 5 last year at the Jakarta headquarters of Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency when a commotion erupted outside.

Investigators from the Corruption Eradication Commission,known by its Indonesian initials KPK,had accused Djoko Susilo of amassing land,cars,mansions and stacks of cash. His arrest was an unprecedented strike against a police force with a long-held reputation for graft in a country routinely ranked as among the most corrupt in the world. At about 9 that night,dozens of policemen descended upon the KPK headquarters with one demand: hand over Novel Baswedan,36,the celebrated investigator who had led the interrogation of Susilo.

But the police didn’t reckon on what followed. Hundreds of protesters,lawyers,activists and journalists arrived to barricade the entrance of the KPK building. Nearly a year later,on September 3,Susilo was sentenced to 10 years and $10.4 million of his assets seized.

Since its establishment in 2002,the KPK has become,contrary to all expectations,a fiercely independent,resilient,popular and successful institution. It has won guilty verdicts in all the 236 cases it has fought,including against cabinet ministers,parliamentarians,central bankers,CEOs,a judge and even a former beauty queen. Big-ticket abuses of power are now a risky proposition in Indonesia.

Over a third of the agency’s 385 arrests since its inception in 2002 have been of politicians. It can slap travel bans on suspects,seize assets and — the secret behind many of its arrests — wiretap conversations without a warrant.

But the overwhelmed and underfunded agency is facing mounting opposition from parliament,police and the presidency. “The KPK’s only friend is the public,” says Dadang Trisasongko,secretary general of the Indonesian chapter of global corruption watchdog Transparency International.

The KPK started small. Early targets were mid-level officials,regional leaders and businessmen. That began to change when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in 2004,vowing to change the graft-riddled system.

In 2008,the agency ensnared the first member of Yudhoyono’s inner circle: Aulia Pohan,a former deputy central bank governor whose daughter is married to the president’s oldest son. Pohan was sentenced to four years on charges of aiming to bribe lawmakers to influence legislation affecting Bank Indonesia.

Novel Baswedan,who joined the agency in 2007 after 10 years with the national police,is the grandson of noted Indonesian freedom fighter A R Baswedan. In his first case at the KPK in 2008,Baswedan nabbed the mayor of the Sumatran city of Medan.

For the first time in years,Indonesia fared better on Transparency International’s country rankings then on corruption perception,leaping to 111th place from 133rd over five years.

In 2009,the KPK began investigating top police detective Susno Duadji for allegedly accepting a bribe. Djuadi famously mocked: “How can a gecko hope to defeat a crocodile?” The remark came back to haunt him. He is serving a three-and-half year jail term for corruption,abuse of power.

Five months later,police arrested two KPK commissioners for extortion and bribery. The charges were dropped after nationwide protests and a Facebook campaign. The agency came under further pressure when its chairman Antasari Azhar was arrested for masterminding the murder of a Jakarta businessman. Azhar,who pleaded innocent,is serving 18 years in prison.

Yudhoyono now seldom speaks out in favour of the agency he once championed.

In early October,the KPK went after the “judicial mafia” — a nexus that links police,prosecutors,fixers and judges. Akil Mochtar,the chief justice of the Constitutional Court,was arrested,with the KPK seizing almost $260,000 in cash. The widening investigation,with the arrest of a half-dozen other figures,is likely to become an issue in next year’s elections.

The KPK’s 75 investigators must sift through thousands of public complaints each year to select the 70 or so cases it can realistically pursue. The agency’s mandate is to investigate cases of 1 billion rupiah ($88,000) and above.

Some 700 employees are shoe-horned into an eight-storey building designed for half that number. Outside,tucked between cargo containers used to store paperwork,are 12 holding cells for suspects.

In 2008,the Ministry of Finance earmarked $19.8 million to build a new KPK headquarters. Parliament stalled on approving it. Indonesians launched a fundraising campaign called ‘Coins for the KPK’,collecting over $36,000. They even contributed bricks and cement. Parliament finally approved the allocation in October 2012.

Yudhoyono said earlier this year corruption had proven hard to eradicate. “I am still not satisfied,” he said. “I am frustrated,I am angry.” In Transparency International’s latest rankings,Indonesia has fallen to 118.

The police downplay any rift. “We regard the KPK as one of our partners,” says Agus Rianto,deputy spokesperson for the national police. “We are like husband and wife. Even spouses clash sometimes,don’t they?”

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