Indonesia's Pols Spend Little Time Behind Bars

The inability of Indonesia’s prison authorities to keep the politically connected in jail is in the spotlight again after reporters found a presumably incarcerated Prosperous Justice Party lawmaker Muhammad Misbakhun in a South Jakarta mall, getting his laptop fixed Wednesday instead of being in his prison cell.

Indonesian lawmakers, who have been appearing in droves before the country’s anti-corruption court to confess to long strings of wrongdoing, appear to regard jail as a relatively minor annoying prospect. They seem to spend little time behind bars.

Misbakhun is the latest. He allegedly amassed a US$22.5 million fortune during his career at the Tax Directorate-General before he joined the Islamic fundamentalist Prosperous Justice Party. He was jailed for forging documents to obtain huge loans from Bank Century, a financial institution at the center of one of Indonesia’s biggest financial scandals.

Although prosecutors had asked for an eight-year prison term for Misbakhun, he was given only a year behind bars, leading President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to demand an explanation for the sentence. None has been forthcoming.

It isn’t the first such embarrassment for the Indonesian prison system. In January, Gayus Tambunan, who was dubbed Indonesia’s traveling tax man, was found to have bribed his way out of jail 58 times, flying to China, Malaysia and Singapore on what was termed “holidays.” Tambunan turned up once in Bali, where he was photographed wearing a wig and glasses. He was eventually returned to prison.

Tambunan had been found guilty of bribing a judge and lawmakers in a case that resulted in an acquittal in his first trial, in which prosecutors dropped major charges against him and stuck him only with a minor embezzlement charge.

Misbakhun, who either is or is not still a lawmaker and member of PKS, as the party is known by its Indonesian-language initials, was just short of completing two thirds of his sentence, at which time prisoners are eligible for parole, depending on behavior. His lawyer, Luhut Simanjuntak, told local media that his client had jointed the prison’s “assimilation program,” which is designed to enable convicted criminal to reintegrate into society.

Minister of Justice Patrialis Akbar told that Misbakhun was allowed to leave his cell during the day as part of the program.

“Misbakhun can leave the prison but he must not stay away from the prison overnight, and he has done so since April. So if he wants to go to the mall there is nothing wrong with it as long as he doesn’t sleep in the mall,” Akbar said.

The remission system itself is under considerable fire on allegations it is being used to free the politically powerful long before they should be let out of jail. Anti-graft activists point to the case of Aulia Pohan, a former deputy governor of Bank Indonesia, the country’s central bank. Aulia is the father in law of President Yudhoyono’s eldest son.

Pohan was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling Rp100 billion (US$22 million) from the central bank in a case that reformers regarded as one of Yudhoyono’s signal accomplishments – jailing an official so prominent and so close to his own family.

However, Pohan’s sentence was cut to three years by the Indonesian Supreme Court. He later received a remission and was granted parole. Three other Bank Indonesia officials were also released.

Eryanto Nugroho, executive director of judiciary watchdog the Legal and Policy Study Center told the Jakarta Globe that “The whole process must be accountable and transparent. The decision should not rest solely with an institution like the Justice Ministry but also involve the law enforcers who prosecuted the case and strict monitoring from members of society.”

Emerson Yuntho, deputy chairman of Indonesia Corruption Watch, called for the remission process to be standardized.

“The definition of good behavior is very subjective and loosely interpreted by prison officials,” he said, adding that ICW had interviewed several inmates about the system. “Our research shows remissions are easily manipulated. There’s lots of potential for bribery and graft.”

Teten Masduki, secretary general of Transparency International Indonesia, said the government should focus on other sanctions than jail time, such as heftier fines and asset seizures.

Topo Santoso, a legal expert from the University of Indonesia, said the system could work if the officials in charge were more committed to eradicating graft.

"Many of the regulations and procedures on remissions and parole are modeled after those in developed countries,” he said. “The Justice Ministry has a department specializing in reviewing parole and remission requests. There are dedicated judges who monitor parolees, but the system doesn’t work because it’s run by incompetent or corrupt people.”

Santoso said giving preferential treatment to corruption convicts in terms of remissions and parole betrayed the public’s sense of justice and victimized the rest of the prison population.

“There are inmates who have been waiting for parole for years and have been rejected, despite being gravely ill,” he said. “It’s different for corruption convicts. The moment they become eligible for parole, they file for it and the next day it is granted.”

(With reporting from the Jakarta Globe)