Indonesia's Judicial Mafia

Siti Hasana was recently sentenced to months in prison at a district court in Bekasi for her first offence. Her crime? Stealing a hairdryer and some beauty creams worth under US$100.

Putting an end to the "judicial mafia" in Indonesia was President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's main promise in his first 100 days in office. After publicly acknowledging corrupt practices in the country's legal system, and setting up a taskforce to tackle it, anticorruption activists say it's business as usual in Jakarta's graft-ridden courts.

Siti's lawyer Ricky Gunawan, who is providing his services for free, says petty criminals are locked behind bars all the time.

"It is a very common phenomenon here. I would say the judges don't have a sense of justice. This is a very small case, and indeed, according to the laws, giving back the equipment doesn't see the charges dropped, but the police have the authority, the discretionary authority to drop the charge. As does the prosecutor and the court. Why should this case even go to trial?" asked Gunawan.

Siti is a mother of three young children and says she stole because she was desperate for money. She tried to settle the matter out of court by paying back the cost of the goods she stole, but to no avail. Her lawyer from Indonesian legal aid believes it was likely corruption was involved.

"Not only in this case, but in almost all cases, it is very hard to prove any corruption, but we can feel it. We can smell indications of corruption. In this case I would say there are indications the owner of the shop may have bribed the prosecutors, but I can't prove that," he said.

It's well known that markuses or middlemen work illegally in the shadows of the country's police stations, attorney general's office and courts. They are the common link in the so-called judicial mafia. They persuade corrupt police officers, prosecutors and judges to drop a case against a client for the right amount of money, but for the poor, bribing is out of the question.

Siti's husband Salim says he was told he had to pay a bribe to get his wife bail time.

"I asked how much and said that if it was only around US$10 I could pay it, but I don't have a lot of money. I said that if it was more than US$100 then I didn't have that kind of money. After I said that they didn't let her out," said Salim.

Siti spent three months in jail before her case went to court and while the poor often end up in overcrowded prisons, for those that have money, doing time isn't so bad.

Tommy Suharto, the son of the former dictator, was found guilty of killing the judge who sentenced him to 18 months in jail for corruption. He received 15 years in jail, but only spent four of them in prison where he was served by personal staff in a comfortable room.

Danang Widoyoko, the coordinator of Indonesian Corruption Watch, says that stories of inmates living very comfortably in prison are all too common.

"There is a joke in Indonesia that you can buy everything in prison except a car and get everything except your freedom. If you have money you can buy everything. You can decorate your cell, or choose which room you want. If you want air-conditioning or free access for your family – that is actually offered by prison guards. Of course bribery is involved and there is still no policy to address this situation," he said.

Activists say corruption is so entrenched in the legal system that it is very hard to eliminate. Tama S. Langkun, who heads Indonesia Corruption Watch's investigation division, was recently assaulted by four men on motorcycles. He was hit with iron sticks and suffered severe head injuries. Just before the attack he had revealed suspiciously large accounts of police generals.

Indonesia's judicial system, says Ricky Gunawan, clearly needs to change.

"The culture of police prosecutors and within the courts it is so deeply rooted in terms of corruption and it is very hard to eliminate. It takes time. If internal mechanisms are strengthened then the system will be more transparent and accountable," said Gunawan.

For Siti Hasana, however, it's too late.

Together with four women she is pushed in a small van. One of the husbands says "don't cry, be strong." For Siti that's hard. She is being locked away from her husband and three small children.

"I am not satisfied with this, I don't feel guilty. I wanted the verdict to be lower than it is now. It is not fair, not fair at all. I already paid everything back, we made an agreement. I don't understand why I had to go on trial," she said.

This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia's independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.