Indonesian Graft Watchdog Case Arrests Raise Immediate Suspicions

The arrest of two members of Indonesia’s elite police Mobile Brigade as suspects in a two-year-old unsolved acid attack on senior graft investigator Novel Baswedan is raising questions whether the two are "protective agents" in a bigger conspiracy to weaken the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), a decade-long thorn in the side of the National Police.

Suspicions have been aroused by questions whether the two were arrested after an exhaustive investigation that involved questioning 73 witnesses, as the national police say, or whether the two turned themselves in, as critics of the police – one of Indonesia’s most corrupt public agencies – believe, in an attempt to blunt the search for higher-ups who ordered the acid attack against an incorruptible investigator.

Novel was frequently involved in major cases involving police officials. One of those cases culminated in the jailing of Inspector General Djoko Susilo. In 2015, the KPK also named Commissioner General Budi Gunawan, a favorite of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle head Megawati Sukarnoputri, as a suspect on suspicious transactions, which resulted in his being canceled as police chief.

In any case the public was shocked when the police announced that they had arrested the two Brimob officers, identified only as RM and RB, in Depok outside of Jakarta last week, reportedly because one of the two was “annoyed and vengeful” at Novel, who was doused with acid on April 11, 2017 as he walked home from morning prayers at a nearby mosque. Suspicions were raised by witnesses’ reports that the attackers were mounted on a police motorcycle.

“RM asked to be delivered by his friend (RB) to Novel's housing area on a motorcycle and his friend did not know that he (RM) would attack Novel," the spokesman said.

The attack scarred the investigator and damaged one of his eyes. Since then, the police have made several public attempts to uncover the actors behind the attack by repeatedly reconstructing the incident, examining dozens of witnesses, releasing sketches of the perpetrators' faces and forming a joint fact-finding team.

Jakarta Police spokesperson Sr. Comr. Argo Yuwono said the police arrested the two after a lengthy investigation. "We also formed a team of experts and a technical team," Argo said, denying rumors circulating that the two surrendered – which has led to speculation of a conspiracy to protect higher-ranking police officials.

Nonetheless, "There is an arrest warrant that has been signed by the suspects," Argo said.

However, several parties including the reformist Indonesia Police Watch (IPW) said the two had actually surrendered.

"The Novel attack case is entering a new phase, which leads to a bright spot because the alleged perpetrators of the attack have surrendered to the police," said Neta S. Pane, chairman of the IPW Presidium in a statement.

Novel Baswedan's Advocacy Team said in a statement that the police had to reveal the motive of the perpetrators suddenly to surrender if they weren’t arrested. The police must also ensure that they are not "sacrificing" themselves to cover up the main actors.

Asfinawati, one of the advocacy team members asked the investigator not to consider the case as a crime motivated by personal revenge but rather to place it in relation to Novel as the KPK‘s investigator.

"The findings of the National Human Rights Commission and the team formed by the National Police have in common, namely attacks on Novel are not by ordinary criminals, but are related to his work at the KPK. That means it is not possible for only two to be the culprit," Asfin said.

Both perpetrators were threatened with a sentence of five years imprisonment, but the advocacy team considered the sentence to be too mild while the crime they committed was not an ordinary crime, but had been planned. Indonesian jails are also considered to be extremely porous, with some powerful offenders on the outside more often than in.

The police have not revealed in detail the motives of the two perpetrators, but one of the suspects, RM, told reporters: "Please note, I don't like Novel because he is a traitor."

Novel in an interview with local media in July 2017 said an active police general allegedly ordered the investigation team to remove perpetrators' fingerprints from cups used to splash hard water during the reconstruction of the incident. But Novel has never revealed the name of the general.

The KPK is the country’s most respected public institution. It has been indiscriminate in punishing political party leaders, ministers, members of parliament, regional heads, and businessmen. Since its establishment 17 years ago, the KPK has been almost unbeatable in the corruption cases it has handled.

The agency has long experienced a series of weakening efforts, including through legislation and various terrors targeting its leaders and employees. Legislation rushed through the House of Representatives in October of 2019 and signed by President Joko Widodo severely weakened the KPK, hampering its ability to handle major, long-running cases.

President to Issue Regulation on KPK

After inaugurating five commissioners and five members of the KPK supervisory board in December, Widodo is scheduled to issue three Presidential Regulations (Perpres), each of which regulates the supervisory board, the KPK organization, and changes the status of its employees.

Anti-corruption researchers and activists said it is clear that by issuing the regulation, Jokowi wants to change the face of the KPK to become part of the government. Among other things, one of the articles in the draft states the leadership of the KPK was under the president's authority and was responsible to him, instead of being an independent ad-hoc institution as it had existed since its inception.

"I suspect this regulation was deliberately made so that the president could fully control the KPK," said Feri Amsari, director of the Center for Constitutional Studies (Pusako) of Andalas University.

Some KPK employees are clearly unhappy with the planned change in their employment status, which puts them under the state civil apparatus. The anti-corruption institution has around 1,200 employees. At least 12 KPK employees are said to have resigned over their loss of independence.

The election of police officer Firli Bahuri as KPK chairman over the objections of employees and former commissioners also briefly caused turmoil, with critics pointing out alleged violations of the code of conduct committed by Firli while serving as the KPK's Deputy for Enforcement.

However, the KPK Employee Organization said it welcomed the appointment of the five members of Supervisory Board, especially Artidjo Alkostar and Albertina Ho, who often imposed severe sentences on corruption perpetrators, and expressed hope that the other three members also exhibit integrity, anti-corruption and independence.

The Supervisory Board will later have great authority to grant or deny permission for wiretapping and search and seizure and to compile and establish a code of ethics for KPK leaders and employees.

Beside Artidjo and Albertina, the three other members of the Supervisory Board are former Constitutional Court Judge Harjono, political expert from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) Syamsuddin Haris and a former deputy chairman and senior KPK prosecutor, Tumpak Hanggangan Panggabean, who will lead the board for the next five years.

Although the members of the Supervisory Board are known to have a good track record, some believe that their existence can reduce the independence of the KPK, at least for two reasons, namely they are appointed by the president and have great authority in the law enforcement.

"The members of the Supervisory Board are not law enforcers. This organ is ultimately in conflict with the concept of criminal and state administration," said Indonesian Corruption Watch researcher Donal Fariz.