Indonesia’s Graft Watchdog KPK in the Fight of Its Life

Indonesia’s acclaimed Corruption Eradication Commission may be facing an existential threat to its survival in taking on the country’s powerful House of Representatives Speaker Setya Novato, with the legislature fighting back against corruption charges with a special inquiry into the KPK’s conduct of graft probes.

Setya – once lauded as “a very, an amazing man” during a 2016 campaign rally in New York by then-candidate for US President Donald Trump – has once again skipped a summons to testify as a witness at a hearing on a graft case involving the provision of smart identification cards to the country’s 265 million residents, a scandal that has been labeled the nation’s largest corruption case ever, costing the government Rp2.3 trillion (US$172.8 million) and implicating dozens of House members.

A KPK prosecutor told the Jakarta Corruption Court that Setya had argued he was immune from testifying due to his position as Golkar Party chairman. This was the second time the speaker has failed to appear in connection with the cards, called e-ID cards. The anti-graft watchdog is looking into other ways to redesignate Setya as a suspect.

The KPK, which has a record of winning every graft case it has brought since it came into existence in 2002, has nonetheless received continuing public criticism for its inability to bring Setya to bay. The organization faces a backlog of 16,000 cases. Its work is limited by small budgets and a relatively small number of total staff in relation to the magnitude of its job.

The House has launched a special inquiry into the KPK, based on what it deems a constitutional right to investigate government affairs. The House has said that it aims to investigate complaints about how the KPK conducts its investigations, allegations of internal conflict and budget mismanagement, and its apparent failure to strengthen the work of police and prosecutors.

The attack on the KPK has taken other forms as well, some of them even more ominous. In April, Novel Baswedan, Indonesia’s leading corruption investigator, was in the middle of a sweeping embezzlement case that implicated leading members of Indonesia’s parliament when he was attacked by having hydrochloric acid thrown in his face. In 2008, then KPK Chairman Antasari Azhar was fired by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after being convicted in a murder case that was largely believed to be a frame-up. He was freed earlier this year by President Joko Widodo and released from prison.

Meanwhile, the courts have been on Setya’s side, going against the KPK with the denial of a pretrial motion against the KPK's decision to name him a suspect in the case, which implicates dozens of other politicians. The KPK’s initial indictment in March allegedly stated as many as 37 lawmakers at the Commission II, which oversees home affairs, received portions of the embezzled funds in return for helping to get the budget approved.

Setya's victory without a doubt hinders the KPK’s investigation into the Golkar Party politician. KPK deputy chief Satu Situmorang revealed that his office was "currently reviewing thoroughly" the reason why they lost the pretrial motion, saying that "there are some loopholes that we must close." Satu promised that the KPK would "be prudent" to build a more solid case against Setya, as regulations allow the KPK to rename a suspect in the same case after losing pretrial motions.

In an October decision, the pretrial hearing's sole judge, Cepi Iskandar, argued that Setya's suspect status had been rendered void since the KPK had used evidence taken from the dossiers of other suspects in the case. At that time, KPK investigators had collected around 200 pieces of evidence indicating Setya's alleged role.

The KPK is believed to have new evidence from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation that could be used to reestablish Setya as a suspect, evidence that ties the house speaker to a key witness in the e-ID case who allegedly committed suicide in August.

Investigators in the US say Johannes Marliem, then the president director of biometric data company Biomorf Lone LLC, took his own life after a tense standoff with police in Los Angeles. He told the Indonesian media that his life might be in danger after he was publicly named a witness in the e-KTP corruption case and shortly before he killed himself.

Setya previously managed to duck charges in a massive 2015 scandal, resigning as speaker in December of that year after an inquiry was launched when the then-head of US mining giant Freeport Indonesia, Maroef Sjamsoeddin, told parliament’s ethics panel he had secretly recorded a meeting with the speaker, who allegedly was trying to extort US$1.8 billion of shares from Freeport’s local unit.

Freeport Indonesia had agreed in a 2014 memorandum of understanding with the government to divest 30 percent of its Indonesian mining operations by 2019 and invest in domestic processing to win an extension of its contract beyond 2021. The government already has a 9.36 percent stake, and had hoped to take another 10.64 percent stake this year, but negotiations stalled after the company and the government couldn’t agree on a price.

However, despite the tape recording, the parliament in late November 2016 reappointed Setya Novant as its speaker, reinstating him despite the shocking scandal. The country’s attorney-general later dropped an investigation, the constitutional court ruled in Setya’s favor and parliament’s ethics panel has also cleared him.

Setya’s political career has continued to flourish in the country despite a long string of scandals going back to 1999, when as Golkar deputy treasurer he was accused of helping to extort money from the chief of Bank Bali. He was later accused of being involved in a rice-smuggling scheme from China, shipping 1,000 tonnes of toxic waste disguised as fertilizer from Singapore for disposal, receiving a bribe in the release of state funds in the 2012 National Games scandal, and other misdoings.

The position of speaker was set aside for Golkar because it has now joined President Joko Widodo’s coalition. Indonesia’s ranking in Transparency International’s corruption perception index improved last year to 88 out of 168 nations, but the watchdog NGO has previously cited parliament as among the most corrupt institutions in the country.