Indonesia Police Catch a King-Size Fish

Indonesia is so used to corruption that the steady parade of crooked lawmakers, policemen, generals, lawyers and others through the offices of the Corruption Eradication Commission and into jail hardly evokes a yawn.

But Adjutant First Inspector Labora Stores, a seemingly low-ranking cop in Papua, has pretty much stopped the country in its tracks. The Papua Police revealed that the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center, the government's anti-money laundering watchdog, had identified transactions amounting to Rp1.5 trillion (US$154 million) passing through Labora's bank accounts from 2007 to 2012.

Given his position at the sixth-lowest rank on the force, Labora earns a monthly salary of Rp8.5 million (US$870), or did until he was arrested last Saturday. He claims his wife, brother-in-law and children run PT Rotua, a timber company, and PT Seno Aid Vijay, a mining and fuel company.

Brig. Gen. Arief Sulistyanto, the National Police director for special and economic crimes, told reporters police had been investigating Labora since mid-March after seizing a boat in Sorong, a West Papua coastal city, that was carrying 400,000 liters of government-subsidized diesel. Labora was later identified as the owner of the craft.

In addition to his suspected fuel smuggling operation, Labora's wood processing business appeared to be thriving, partly by allegedly selling rare woods into China. Senior Cmdr. Setyo Budi Setyanto, the Papua Police director for special crimes, told reporters the force was also investigating Labora's alleged ownership of 115 containers of timber now being held at Surabaya's Tanjung Perak port.

"The wood was sent from Sorong and we're currently inspecting the documents. We ordered the shipment seized on suspicion that it belongs to (Labora)," Setyo told reporters, adding that police are looking into allegations that the timber was a product of illegal logging and that the fuel had been siphoned from tankers out at sea.

"The Rp1.5 trillion going to and from his bank accounts begs the question: Just how many liters of subsidized fuel had he been selling at an unsubsidized price?" wrote Jakarta Globe columnist Nivell Reyda. "Or how many hectares of timber did he smuggle out of the resource-rich province? To think that a low-ranking officer is running this elaborate and massive scheme makes no sense at all."

To give an idea of the transactions from Labora's bank account, Reyda wrote, "Lippo Karawaci, Indonesia's biggest property company by market value, is planning to build an integrated property project composed of an international standard hospital, hotel and trade center in West Sumatra for a price tag of Rp1.3 trillion. Unless he has been running a large construction company in his free time or managed a charity program to hand out Rp500,000 per month to 600,000 poor people in the last five years, or operate a luxury car dealership to sell 100 Ferraris every year, it is safe to say Labora's transactions were illicit."

Other media reported Labora's family owned a water theme park next to its lumber yard, plus possibly a liquor business. Alcohol is nominally forbidden from sale in Indonesia except in hotels and restaurants although beer is sold everywhere.

He appears to have got away with his huge business by keeping his senior officers awash in funds, local media reported. Police said Labora always cut in senior officers in exchange for being allowed to operate unhindered, to the point that Labora was called "the cash machine" for regularly kicking back sums of up to Rp300 million to his superiors.

His defenders say his arrest was the result of an internal squabble in the Papua police and that he was a pawn in a game between high-ranking officers.

Papua Police claim they have been investigating Labora since mid-March, but only revealed last week that a report from the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center, the government's anti-money laundering agency. They said they had confiscated 15,000 logs, 1,500 blocks and 81 containers of timber in Papua and Surabaya in late March from PT Rotua that were allegedly intended for export to China, as well as three barges carrying 1 million liters of diesel fuel off the Sorong port.

Brig. Gen. Arief Sulistyanto, the National Police's director for special and economic crimes, said investigators established that Labora had bought a rare and highly sought hardwood timber, called merbau, from local communities through PT Rotua.

"The suspect obtained the merbau from communities in Segun and Magbon villages in Sorong district, as well as in Waelibet village, Batanta Island and Misol Island in Raja Ampat district," Arief said.

Commercial logging of merbau trees is prohibited, but Rotua appears to have circumvented the prohibition by getting local communities, which are allowed to fell the trees in limited quantities for their own use, to sell them to the company, Arief said. He added that the company had been at it for at least two years and those 2,264 cubic meters of rough-sawn merbau seized in Surabaya were believed to be destined for China.

The wood is in demand by consumers in China, the world's biggest importer of merbau, as well as the United States and Europe, where it is widely used for flooring and furniture, mainly due to its durability and resistance to termites. Most of the merbau trees in Indonesia are in Papua, where large tracts of virgin forest remain unexploited, unlike the more developed regions in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

But with loggers having exhausted the western forests, many are now turning their attention to Papua, resulting in the province having lost a quarter of its forests over the past 12 years.

The tree is categorized as "vulnerable" on the Threatened Species Red List published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the leading conservation status authority.

Arief said Labora ran his alleged fuel-smuggling business through another company, Seno Ache Vijay, which had a license from PERTAMINA, the state oil company, to sell up to 2,000 kiloliters of subsidized fuel per month.

Although the permit expired in October 2012, the company continued to sell fuel, with allegations emerging that fuel was siphoned from oil tankers at sea. Arief said police were still investigating the origin of the fuel.

The Semi Ache Vijay chief director, Jimi Lag sang, was investigated for fuel smuggling in March, which led police to Labora.

"That's because Labora's account at Bank Mandarin in Papua received payments [from SAW]," Arief said, adding that police had since blocked all Labora's accounts.

Labora, meanwhile, claims the two businesses were legitimate and that he is being unfairly targeted. Prior to his arrest, he reportedly filed three complaints with the National Police Commission, the government watchdog for the police force, according to M. Nasser, a police commissioner.

The complaints were related to the police's handling of the investigation and naming him a suspect, and also involved a claim by Labora that the investigation against him was due to a business rival having snitched to the police about his business activities.

(With reporting from the Jakarta Globe)