Is Indonesia's anti-corruption court in danger?

Since its inception in 2002 as a part of Indonesia's reformasi movement in the wake of the fall of the strongman Suharto, the country's Anti-Corruption Court has amassed an amazing record.

It is now faced with the end of its tenure, with its legislative mandate due to run out in December. If it is allowed to continue, it will say a great deal about the direction in which President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will take the country after he is expected to be re-elected, either in July or in September if there is a runoff against one of his two presidential opponents, Megawati Sukarnoputri or Jusuf Kalla.

The Corruption Eradication Commission, which was set up under the same legislation to investigate and try cases in the anti-corruption court, has never lost a single case. Relying on powers that truly can be called draconian, including warrantless wiretaps and other law enforcement tools, it has played a major role in the perceptions of Yudhoyono as a reformer, despite the fact that there is little beyond the agency's activities that would indicate Indonesia is being cleaned up very much.

Nonetheless, since it was set up, nine members of parliament, a former national police chief, three ambassadors, a senior prosecutor and three central bank officials including the former governor Burhanuddin Abdullah and the bank's deputy governor to jail, along with scores of lesser central and provincial government officials and businessmen have been packed off to jail.

And, Haryano Umar, the commission's deputy chairman, told Asia Sentinel in an interview, the agency has its eyes on as many as another 15 of the members of the country's House of Representatives. Three more were named Tuesday as suspects in an alleged bribery case over the appointment of a new Bank Indonesia deputy governor

For that reason alone, the shell-shocked 560 members of the Indonesia House of Representatives are in no hurry to pass enabling legislation that must be put in place by December 19 to continue the anti-corruption court in existence although lawmakers Wednesday committed to putting the legislation back on the agenda to see if they can pass it before the body recesses.

Before their commitment Wednesday, they had already missed one critical deadline. When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met with leaders of the house to push for the passage of six "crucial" bills to be passed before the current legislature is dissolved on Sept. 30, the enabling legislation for the anti-corruption court wasn't among them. Yudhoyono said at the time that the bill wasn't included because the Constitutional Court had ruled that it did not have to be passed until Dec. 19.

The anti-corruption court, with its stellar record, stands out dramatically against the rest of the country's court system, which is considered to be the most corrupt in Southeast Asia, both in criminal and civil matters. More than half of the corruption cases tried by the public courts in 2008 were simply dismissed, according to Indonesian Corruption Watch, which said more than 60 percent of defendants were found not guilty. Those convicted were sentenced to only 15 months in jail, compared to an average of 50 months in the Anti-Corruption Court.

Already, the House of Representatives is faced with the job of finding a successor for Antasari Azhur, the head of the corruption eradication agency. Antasari was arrested in April on charges of having ordered the murder of Nasrudin Zulkarnaen, the 41-year-old head of a state-owned pharmaceutical company. Despite the corruption eradication agency's record in hauling in governmental miscreants, anticorruption activists say Antasari got in the way of more cases than he promoted. The house, rated by Indonesians as their most corrupt public institution, is not expected to pick a reformer.

Even with its chairman in jail, the anti-corruption agency itself has shown no signs of slowing down. Haryano said the lack of a chairman has posed no problems so far. The agency depends on a five-person commission for its decisions, not a single chairman, and the other four are continuing to do their job. Diplomatically, he declined to say whether Antasari had got in the agency's way.

Yudhoyono told reporters in May that "We really want to complete the law on the Anti-Corruption Court within the present presidential and house terms. I would prefer to continue our discussions [of the bill] and to finish it."

But reformers are concerned. If the house of representative doesn't finish its debate before the recess for the election, the newly constituted house won't sit for its first session until October and, given its lack of enthusiasm for an agency that appears to be dedicated to putting lawmakers behind bars, isn't likely to speed through the legislation enabling the anti-corruption court to continue to exist.

The president has the option of issuing a special regulation in lieu of law, known as a perpu, to keep the court alive. He told reporters in May that he would prefer not to issue a perpu.

"We will only use a regulation in lieu of law if we really have to," the president said. "The fewer regulations in lieu of laws there are the better, because we still have some other mechanisms and time to complete the law."

Speaking on the same occasion, the house speaker said a legislative committee which oversees legal and judiciary affairs, had already set up a special task force to carry out an intensive review of the draft Anti-Corruption Court bill.

"We will also try to complete it before September 30," he said. "The Constitutional Court has decided that the law must be completed by December 19, 2009. If it can't be done by that time, then of course there will be ways to go about handling that problem. But we will try our best."

That may well leave Yudhoyono with having to issue the perpu, whether he wants to or not.

The big question is whether, after his presumed re-election, Yudhoyono will seek to clean up the conventional court system. Without a cleanup, Indonesia will sadly remain pretty much the country it is. That is illustrated by a raft of civil cases in which high-flying tycoons solve their legal problems by taking them before friendly judges.

The latest case to catch the public eye is between the McDonald's hamburger chain and Bambang N. Rachmadi, the holder of 13 McDonald's franchises, who is seeking to take the fast-food chain to court on allegations it transferred franchises to the wealthy Sosrodjojo family without his knowledge or permission.

"Mr. Rachmadi was fully and properly informed of all matters to be decided by the shareholders of PT Bina Nusa Rama," McDonald's said in a statement. Nonetheless, McDonalds now finds itself in court, along with a variety of other multinationals in different cases that have good reason to worry that decisions aren't going to be made on their merits.