Indonesia's Unlikely Flip-Flop Protest

Angry Indonesians have been depositing sandals outside of police stations across the country as a protest against the arrest, severe beating and trial of a 15-year-old boy for stealing a pair of cheap, worn-out white flip-flops while crooks stealing millions of dollars have gone free.

The teenager, identified only as AAL, was beaten by three policemen during interrogation in the provincial capital of Palu in Central Sulawesi and is liable for up to five years in prison.

A public campaign started by the National Commission for Child Protection (KPAI) to collect 1,000 pairs of sandals to mock the arrest has spiraled, with people all over the country joining in the protest. KPAI chairwoman Maria Ulfa Anshor, speaking on Tuesday as the sandals were being counted, said the goal of the campaign was the release of AAL “from the entrapment of unfair justice, one that has no conscience.”

The case of the 15-year-old plays out against the backdrop of a series of massive scandals including bribery involving millions of dollars over the construction of the athletes’ village in Palembang for the Southeast Asian Games, which were held in November. Accusations have been made against top members of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party and backed up with receipts for bribes paid. No action has been taken.

Similarly, Gayus Tambunan, a mid-ranking tax official, testified earlier this year that he had accepted bribes to conceal tax charges in the hundreds of millions of dollars from as many as 40 companies including three units of the Bakrie corporate empire headed by Aburizal Bakrie, head of the Golkar political party and an announced candidate for president to succeed Yudhoyono. No investigations have been initiated into Tambunan’s charges, nor are there likely to be.

In March 2010, Susno Duadji, a renegade police official under investigation for bribery, raised a storm by accusing three top police officials of taking bribes from Tambunan to bury a criminal probe after he was discovered to have Rp28 billion (US$3.1 million) in his bank account. The case ensnared the Attorney General's Office, top officials of the National Police and the Tangerang District Court as well the Directorate General of Taxation and a number of companies. No action has been taken against anyone.

The National Police, one of the country’s most corrupt public institutions, have been embarrassed by the protest over the sandals and now insist that the youth’s parents wanted the youth to be taken to court.

“We have reminded the parents of AAL that he was still a minor, but the parents and their lawyers were the one demanding the legal process,” Inspector. Gen. Saud Usman Nasution, the police spokesman, told reporters. Saud said that on May 27, policemen had questioned three youths over the missing pair of sandals, worth the equivalent of US$3.30 new, and “the three then admitted it.”

The following day, AAL’s parents reported the officers to the provincial police, accusing them of forcing a confession by beating the teen. Saud, however, maintained that the policemen had not beaten anyone, claiming that “there was an emotional action of pushing the boy until he fell.”

The parents of the three youths were summoned to retrieve their children, but AAL’s parents and lawyer returned the next day to say that they had reported the two policemen for mistreating their child.

“The parents also demanded that their offspring also be reported legally,” Saud said. “Once again, it was at the behest of the parents that their child be reported for legal action.”

He said police had reminded the parents that their child was still a minor and should not be taken to court. He added that the boy had never been detained. Both officers, he continued, had been punished with days of detention. One faces a police tribunal for discipline, while the other officer has been censured with a one-year stay of promotion.

Commenting on the sandal collection campaign, Saud said that “if the public wants to hand over sandals, please do. We will accept them and give them to those who need them.”

The child protection commission’s Anshor said a National Police circular had instructed officers to prioritize the needs of child development. Despite the circular, the chairwoman added, the commission had found that 6,273 minors were being held in jail on criminal charges last year.

(Additional reporting by Jakarta Globe)