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A Deadly Omen in Jakarta
Tim Dodd on the assassination of the Indonesian judge who stood up to the family of former dictator Suharto.
By Tim Dodd
At about 8 a.m. on July 26 of last year, Syafiuddin Kartasasmita, a judge of Indonesia's supreme court, left his home in the Jakarta suburb of Sunter to drive the six miles to his office at the court, a white monolith that faces Jakarta's huge central square. Ignoring the advice of friends and fellow judges to travel with bodyguards because he'd been dealing with controversial cases, Syafiuddin drove his silver Honda past a cluster of new two-story houses in his neighborhood and into the narrow streets of a slum. On Jalan Sunter Jaya, a busy road lined with stalls that is barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic, two men on a motorcycle pulled even with his car. One took out a 9 millimeter Beretta pistol and fired as the cycle moved by. The bullet entered the back of Syafiuddin's neck, and his car careered into the window of a tiny barbershop. One of the men dismounted and, through the car's windshield, fired two more shots into Syafiuddin's body. By the time the judge was brought to the hospital, he was dead.

Weeks later, Indonesian police arrested two men who confessed to the murder. In statements to police and the press, the pair said they did the killing at the request of Hutomo Mandala Putra, better known as Tommy, the youngest son of Suharto, Indonesia's 32-year autocratic ruler who through monopolies and corruption made a fortune estimated in the billions of dollars. After Suharto was forced to resign in the wake of Indonesia's devastation during the East Asian economic crisis in 1997-98, Tommy was accused of swindling the government out of $9.36 million (at current conversion rates) in a bogus land deal. At a trial widely regarded as rigged, a judge cleared him of the charges (there are no trials by jury in Indonesia). But on appeal, a panel of three supreme court judges found Tommy guilty, and in September 2000, they sentenced him to 18 months in prison. Syafiuddin led the panel.

When news of Tommy's sentence leaked out, most Indonesians were stunned. The idea that a Suharto would be brought to justice for the family's flagrant corruption clashed with everything they had come to expect of their legal system. Indonesian courts routinely deal in money, not justice. The same goes for the whole legal system. Bribes are necessary to pay a traffic ticket, get a driver's license, or transfer a property title. Aspiring police officers have to pay senior ones to join the force—an investment they usually recoup by demanding cash from citizens once they're in uniform.

Not surprisingly, palm-greasing favors the well-off, who can afford to make sure they get results, and it hurts ordinary Indonesians who can't buy "KKN"—their term for the combination of corruption, collusion, and nepotism that plagues the courts. The legal system's caprice also puts off foreign investors, whom this populous, mostly Muslim Southeast Asian country—with 230 million people, the world's fourth-largest—desperately needs to attract. In Indonesia's effort to move from the authoritarian regime of Suharto to a successful democracy with a stable economy, strengthening the rule of law may be the country's biggest challenge.

When Suharto resigned in 1998, he left behind a mess. Besides endemic corruption and an authoritarian government, there was a dysfunctional economy, a powerful and headstrong army, rising Muslim fundamentalism, and rebellions by separatists in the far-flung provinces of East Timor, Aceh, and West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya). Suharto's immediate successor, B.J. Habibie, ended state control over the press and, in 1999, brought Indonesia its first free election in 44 years. Habibie lost peacefully to Abdurrahman Wahid, a nearly blind Muslim cleric. Wahid took office in October with a democratic activist record, but he did little for human rights and turned out to be better at turning allies into enemies than at administration. His 21-month presidency ended with his impeachment.

The country's latest leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri (the daughter of Indonesia's first president following the end of Dutch rule in 1945), became president in July 2001. She has had to deal with a series of challenges: opposition from Muslim fundamentalists who oppose her presidency because she is a woman and want to make Islamic rather than secular law the basis for the legal system; continuing clashes between rebels and the military in Aceh and West Papua; and an economy hamstrung by $140 billion of public and private debt. That debt roughly equals the country's annual gross domestic product, and has left Indonesians with an average income of less than $700 a year.

Perhaps most urgently, Megawati must attack the corruption that has worsened since Suharto's day. Indonesia still ranks among the world's most corrupt countries, with lower marks than other Asian nations like Malaysia and the Philippines, according to a corruption-tracking group called Transparency International. The International Monetary Fund recently insisted that the country intensify its efforts at law reform before granting the release of the latest installment in a $5 billion program of economic support.

At a youthful-looking 60, Syafiuddin was a typical veteran judge. He had three well-appointed houses and two wives (as Muslim law permits), and lived well beyond his official monthly salary and allowance of less than $750. Like many judges, Syafiuddin was thought to be "approachable"—mainly through a close associate widely believed to be his "case broker," whom plaintiffs or defendants could consult to fix a case. His first wife, So'imah, a staunch defender of the judge's integrity, said in an interview that it was "quite normal" for a judge "to receive gifts as long as there was nothing attached."

A prosecutor by training, Syafiuddin was no enemy of the Suharto family: He was appointed by Suharto to the supreme court in 1994. He was no dissenter, either. The press touted him as a candidate for chief justice when the post opened up earlier last year. He wasn't chosen, but he kept his high profile. At the time of his death, he was heading a committee to select judges for a new human rights tribunal.

Along with helping to build the new court, Syafiuddin was involved in a string of cases that reformers saw as pivotal in the effort to purge the Suharto legacy of corruption and human rights abuses. Based on his record, however, it's hard to see Syafiuddin as a reformer. It's true that in March 2001, Syafiuddin sat on the supreme court panel that imposed a six-year jail sentence for Suharto's onetime business associate and golfing buddy, the Chinese-Indonesian timber tycoon Mohamad "Bob" Hasan. So far, Hasan is the only Suharto ally to serve prison time for corruption. But his conviction is less remarkable than it might appear, because his Chinese origin marks him as an outsider. The judge also served on a panel that affirmed a lower-court decision to acquit Djoko Tjandra, the main figure in a high-profile political corruption case in which $70 million of state funds intended to bail out failed banks ended up in accounts linked to Habibie's Golkar party, just before the 1999 election. The scandal caused the IMF and the World Bank to suspend loans to Indonesia.

And in February 2001, Syafiuddin headed a panel that agreed to postpone the corruption trial of Suharto himself. Charges against the 80-year-old former president had been suspended when a district court accepted medical evidence that he was too ill to face prosecution. The supreme court's agreement means that Suharto, who is ailing mentally as well as physically according to his lawyers, probably never will appear in court.

Given his ambiguous record, Syafiuddin didn't stand out from the ranks of Indonesia's pliable judges when Tommy's fraud case came before him. So his decision to convict Tommy surprised people—perhaps no one more than the defendant himself. At age 39, Suharto's son is pampered and accustomed to getting what he wants. In 1991, he got control of the market for cloves, an essential ingredient in most Indonesian cigarettes, when Suharto awarded him a national monopoly. And in 1996, Tommy got a share of the auto market from his father: He was allowed to import vehicles free of the tariffs paid by other automakers so that he could create a "national car." In 1998, after the economic collapse, the IMF insisted that Tommy's auto monopoly end when it bailed out Indonesia.

Tommy's conviction stemmed from a 1995 deal in which his company, Goro, obtained a 110-acre plot of land in North Jakarta that belonged to Bulog, the state rice distributor, in exchange for a 155-acre plot in the same area—a plot that Goro financed in part with a loan backed by Bulog, which Goro never repaid. Syafiuddin's panel convicted and sentenced Tommy in September 2000, but Indonesia's police left the young Suharto free to travel the country.

Either a few weeks before or after the conviction—the timing isn't clear—Tommy sent Syafiuddin a message asking for a meeting. A year earlier, the judge had married his second wife, Iwa Setiawati, who is a close friend of Indra Hasan, Tommy's friend and provider of bodyguards. Syafiuddin agreed to see Tommy, and Iwa and Indra arranged a meeting at Iwa's house. Unconvincingly, Iwa says the meeting's purpose was silaturahmi, an Indonesian custom of catching up with friends. "It did not involve money at all, I swear to God," she said in an interview.

But So'imah, the judge's first wife, says that Iwa took Tommy's money before the conviction, and set him up to expect an acquittal from Syafiuddin. So'imah was married to Syafiuddin for 30 years and is the mother of his three children. While she hesitated to talk about the judge only five months after his murder, she was livid on the subject of Iwa. She says the judge's second wife "ruined his reputation and destroyed him" by taking bribes from litigants at her suburban home, which "was like a second office of the supreme court." So'imah insists that Syafiuddin "didn't know that his name was being used and sold." Iwa denies So'imah's allegations.

Whatever the facts surrounding his meeting with Judge Syafiuddin, Tommy also twice went to see then-President Wahid at around the same time. According to Tommy's lawyer, Wahid and his family accepted nearly $2 million in exchange for the promise of a pardon. Wahid denies the allegation. In November 2000, Wahid's office announced that the president had refused Tommy's pardon request. Prosecutors told Tommy to turn himself in the following day.

Instead, Tommy disappeared. He didn't flee the country, though, as many rumors had it; he had enough friends to hide him in Jakarta. If the police had bothered to watch his associates and listen to their phone calls, they probably would have caught him quickly.

But Tommy got the result he wanted before the police found him. In October 2001, the three supreme court judges who heard Tommy's final appeal reversed his conviction, announcing that he was innocent of fraud. Syafiuddin's murder seems to have had a powerful effect on the head of the review panel, Judge Taufiq. According to The Jakarta Post, Taufiq said in defense of the reversal: "To be honest, I would prefer being condemned to getting myself killed." Taufiq, who refused to be interviewed for this article, has also said that he believes the decision was legally correct.

In November 2001, police finally arrested Tommy—for murder. In August they had raided a house rented by a friend of his, where Tommy is believed to have stayed while on the run, and found a 9 millimeter Beretta, registered to him, which was matched to bullets found at the scene where the judge was shot. Saying they believed Tommy arranged Syafiuddin's killing, the police assembled evidence so that prosecutors could bring charges.

But one of the motorcycle hit men who admitted to killing Syafiuddin said at his own trial that he was following instructions from an associate of Tommy's, not from Tommy himself, as he initially told the police and the press. Twice prosecutors sent the case against Tommy back to the police, claiming that there was not enough evidence to prosecute. At press time, no charges had been brought.

Even if he someday stands trial, Tommy is unlikely to be convicted, whether or not he is guilty. Muhammad Asrun, a University of Indonesia law professor who keeps an eye on the courts through his organization, Judicial Watch, believes that Tommy's first trial, which cleared him, and the review that set aside the conviction handed down by Syafiuddin were both tainted. If Tommy is now charged with murder, Asrun says he has "no confidence that the case will be fair and the judicial process will be independent."

To convince Indonesians that their legal system is really changing, in any case, a conviction would seem meaningful only if it were followed by widespread reform. Megawati's political appeal is based on the belief that she cares about the ordinary Indonesians for whom the law's shortcomings are an everyday frustration. But a purge by Megawati of corruption carried out by political insiders would send her support plummeting among the elite. In addition, while Megawati herself has never been implicated in corruption, her husband, the businessman-politician Taufik Kiemas, would be a likely target of investigation.

So far, there is no sign that Megawati's government has any plans to rein in the bribery and illegal deal-making that infuses the legal system. "There is no strong commitment to make the judicial process clean, just, and independent," Asrun says. Syafiuddin's killing, rather than his unexpected conviction of Tommy Suharto, looks like the more reliable omen about the future of law reform in Indonesia.

Tim Dodd is South East Asia Correspondent for The Australian Financial Review and is based in Jakarta.

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