JAKARTA – Accused of “despicable actions,” another general has been sacked for allegedly covering up the circumstances behind a sensational murder case implicating the influential head of police internal affairs that is fast turning into an accountability test for Indonesia’s entire criminal justice system.
As chief of law enforcement, President Joko Widodo is feeling the heat from that and other high-profile scandals, including police actions blamed for the deaths of 135 fans in a stampede at an overcrowded Malang, East Java football stadium.
Political coordinating minister Mahfud MD says there is an urgent need for a change of culture within the police, warning against “greed, arrogance and hedonism” in a 450,000-strong force that has resisted reform since it separated from the armed forces structure in 1999.
“Cultural reform within the police is a must,” declared the former Constitutional Court judge, answering critics who point to a lack of external supervision. “There is no point in legal reform without the reform of the culture.”
Whether it happens is a different matter. Public surveys show the national police ranks alongside Parliament as Indonesia’s least trusted institution, well below the military, whose territorial structure ensures it still retains a pervasive influence.
After reading the riot act to police chief General Listyo Sigit in a closed-door encounter last month, the president pulled no punches either when he called an unprecedented meeting with nearly 600 senior police officers, including 33 of the 34 regional commanders.
The last straw for Widodo came with the arrest of East Java police chief Inspector-General Teddy Minahasa on drug charges, just days after he was appointed in place of Inspector General Nico Afinta, who was held responsible for events leading up to the world’s second-worst football stadium disaster.
Afinta lost his job after it was determined that ill-disciplined riot police firing teargas into the stands triggered the deadly stampede in the grossly over-crowded Malang stadium, which Widodo now wants demolished.
Minahasa was accused of trafficking five kilograms of methamphetamine while serving as chief of police in West Sumatra, but few details have emerged so far about the case and why it only surfaced after his promotion.
Only two months earlier, the police had been rocked by the arrest of internal affairs division chief Inspector General Ferdy Sambo for allegedly ordering the murder of an aide, the motive of which has yet to be credibly established.
Only this week, Brigadier-General Hendra Kurniawan, former head of the Internal Security Bureau, was dismissed for trying to obstruct the investigation into the murder of Brigadier Yosua Hutabarat, who was shot dead in Sambo’s residence on July 8.
In what was described as “despicable” behavior, Kurniawan was accused of manipulating witness testimony, concealing CCTV footage inside the house and trying to force the family of the dead policeman to accept a fictitious account of the shooting.
As many as 97 personnel are suspected of being involved in the crime or the cover-up and 35 have been charged with violating the code of ethics, including an inspector-general, three brigadier generals and six senior commissioners.
With his wife as a co-defendant, Sambo is now on trial for ordering one of his officers to shoot the aide before he allegedly put a final bullet in the back of his head and fired his pistol multiple times into a wall to create the impression there had been a shootout.
“This is a test not only for the police but also for the Attorney-General’s Office and the court,” Ardi Manto Adiputra, deputy director of rights group Imparsial told news agency AFP. “It is a test for the criminal justice system.”
Claims that the aide was killed for sexually molesting Sambo’s wife have been greeted with widespread disbelief, but it is a story Sambo has continued to stick with despite rumors that the victim was silenced for other reasons.
As if all that was not enough, the police suffered a further blow to their image when it was disclosed that officers in Bogor had compelled a gang-rape victim to marry one of her four assailants as a twisted form of restorative justice that has enraged human rights activists.
Widodo had a difficult relationship with the police leadership when he came to power in 2014, but his appointment of trusted former counter-terrorism chief General Tito Karnavian as police commander in 2016 has allowed him to use it to shore up his base.
According to a 2020 ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute study, which delved into the way it said the police have become both an internal security force and a political instrument, a total of 30 retired or active generals hold strategic positions in the Widodo administration.
The Indonesian Ombudsman has also reported that 25 commissioners with police backgrounds sit on the boards of state-owned companies and their subsidiaries.
Apart from Karnavian, who is now home affairs minister, retired or serving policemen currently head the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), the National Narcotics Agency (BNN), the State Logistics Agency (BULOG) and the National Counter-Terrorism Agency.
More controversially, former commissioner-general Firli Bahuri is the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Agency (KPK), which had long been a thorn in the side of the police before he took over in 2019 in what was widely regarded as a retrograde step for a once-admired body.
BIN director Budi Gunawan, who remains a close confidant of ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, was denied promotion to police chief in 2014 after he was named a suspect in a prominent corruption case that ultimately never went to court.
Although Megawati and Widodo have always had a strained relationship, Gunawan too is perceived to be a valued ally of the president in providing intelligence on key security andpolitical issues.
One of the main police targets has been Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab, a vocal critic of Widodo who had a leading role in the mass protests in 2016-17 that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama.
Last year, the firebrand cleric was sentenced to four years of imprisonment for providing false information about his Covid-19 test and a further eight months for breaching pandemic restrictions after his return from self-exile in Saudi Arabia.
In a more chilling episode last December, a police team killed four FPI members as they trailed Shihab’s convoy on a Jakarta expressway. Two police officers were acquitted of the killing after a court decided they had acted in self-defense.
Now the same size as the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), the police is one of Indonesia’s best-funded state institutions. Last year’s police budget was 111 trillion rupiah (US$7.1 billion), up from 107 trillion rupiah in 2020 ($7 billion) and 94.3 trillion rupiah ($6 billion) in 2019.
That compares with a 2021 defense budget of 136.9 trillion rupiah ($8.7 billion) covering all three of the armed services and the down payment on any new big-ticket hardware they need to defend the country’s sovereignty.
During an annual leadership meeting earlier this year, Widodo urged the military and police to crack down on radical Islamic gatherings, continuing a policy that gathered pace after the 2019 presidential and general elections.
But the campaign appears to have had a much broader impact with Amnesty International issuing a report last month documenting how the space for civil society has shrunk over the past three years “as a result of an ongoing assault on the rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, personal security and freedom from arbitrary detention.”
Last June, a poll conducted by Indikator Politik Indonesia found that 60% of respondents agreed that citizens were now more afraid to express their opinions and 57% thought it was getting more difficult to hold street protests because of tighter police surveillance and arbitrary arrests.