Guest Post: Indonesian Anticorruption Institutions at Risk, Part 1: The Significance of the KPK’s First Acquittal

GAB is pleased to welcome Simon Butt, Professor of Indonesian Law and Director of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law, the University of Sydney, to contribute a two-part series on recent developments in Indonesia. Today’s post, the first of the two, is a revised and expanded version of an article that Professor Butt originally published on the East Asia Forum.)

Over the past decade or so, Indonesia’s anticorruption commission (the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, or KPK) had managed to deflect numerous efforts of powerful politicians and senior law enforcement figures to reduce its independence and effectiveness. However, last month Indonesia’s national parliament appears to have successfully hobbled the Commission, with the support of President Joko Widodo. The effort to weaken the Commission began with the appointment of a new batch of commissioners, widely condemned as being sympathetic to the regime or likely to be ineffective. This was followed by amendments to the Commission’s founding statute that are clearly designed to render the Commission ineffective in investigating and prosecuting corruption.

An important precursor to these events was the KPK’s first loss in court. Until this past July, the KPK had not, since its establishment in 2003, lost any of the hundreds of cases it had brought to full trial. This was a remarkable achievement in a country renowned for deeply entrenched and widespread corruption at the highest levels, particularly in government institutions and the courts.

But on July 11, 2019, the KPK’s perfect record was broken when a divided three-judge Supreme Court panel voted to acquit Syafruddin Arsyad Temenggung, the former chair of the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency. Temenggung had been convicted at trial (in one of Indonesia’s specialized anticorruption courts) for a scheme in which a businessman, Sjamsul Nursalim, overstated the value of assets used to repay government assistance funds he had received after the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis. According to the prosecution, by improperly approving the discharge of Nursalim’s debt, Temenggung caused the Indonesian state to lose 4.5 trillion rupiah (well over USD 300 million). Temenggung’s lawyers argued, among other things, that there was no proof that their client had obtained any benefit from Nursalim in exchange for discharging the debt, and that their client was simply doing his job and had not committed any crime. The trial court rejected these defences, convicted Temenggung, and sentenced him to 12 years’ imprisonment. On the first appeal, the Jakarta High Provincial Court affirmed the conviction and increased the prison sentence to 15 years. But Temenggung then appealed to the Supreme Court, and there he prevailed. At time of writing, the Supreme Court judgment acquitting Temenggung has not yet been made publicly available. Nevertheless, according to media reports, two of the three judges on the panel voted to acquit Temenggung, though for somewhat different reasons, while the third judge would have affirmed the conviction.

Given that the KPK probably lacks a legal basis for asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision, the KPK appears to have now suffered its first defeat in its 15-year history. The loss of this case is a major blow on its own terms, because it was the KPK’s largest-ever case in monetary terms, involving over twice the alleged state loss than its previous largest case. But the significance of this acquittal may be much broader, and raises a number of questions about the future of corruption eradication efforts in Indonesia. Continue reading