For Indonesia's anti-graft agency, death may come from a thousand paper cuts

01 June 2021 05:07 by Jet Damazo-Santos

Indonesian anti-graft

In Jakarta today, almost 1,300 employees of Indonesia’s anticorruption agency are being inaugurated as official members of the civil service. But some of the agency’s most senior investigators and officials won’t be part of them, after failing to pass a highly controversial exam that supposedly tests their nationalism or loyalty to the nation.

With its eyebrow-raising content, including interview questions directed to single female employees about why they are not married or whether they would be willing to become a second wife, critics claim the test is nothing more than a brazen ploy by corrupt officials to get rid of staff who can’t be compromised.

Proof of this, they say, are the even more eyebrow-raising results: Among the 51 set to be dismissed for failing the test so badly are senior staff such as Novel Baswedan - arguably Indonesia’s most high-profile investigator, who played a key role in major corruption probes that have sent police generals, top politicians and even the speaker of the House of Representatives to jail.

Complaints have already been filed with various Indonesian institutions, such as the Constitutional Court, the Office of the Ombudsman and the National Commission on Violence Against Women. President Joko Widodo has said that those who failed the test shouldn’t be dismissed but instead undergo development programs. And some 600 of the anti-graft agency’s employees have asked that their inauguration into the civil service today be postponed in solidarity with their colleagues.

But the current leaders of the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, have refused to budge, leading to anti-graft campaigners both in Indonesia and abroad to warn that this could finally be the blow that knocks out the once highly feared and highly respected institution.

Paper cuts

The KPK and its key figures are no stranger to attacks over its 18-year history. But while previous attempts have been more blunt — including filing dubious charges against its commissioners and a shocking acid attack that left Novel blind in one eye - these latest attempts through signed laws and regulations have been more cunning and more difficult to block.

The current issue stems from twin attacks in September 2019. First, lawmakers confirmed a controversial police general plagued by ethics questions, Firli Bahuri, as the new head of the KPK for 2019-2023. Then, just a day after, the outgoing legislature passed with uncharacteristic haste an amendment to the law governing the KPK.

Drafted ostensibly to improve checks and balances over the powerful agency, the amendments were instead seen as an attempt to curb the KPK’s powers and independence. Among the changes were the creation of a new supervisory board that the commission’s leaders must answer to, and the requirement for KPK employees to become part of the civil service, which would compromise their independence.

Although academics, lawyers, and activists challenged the new law through the Constitutional Court, most of it was upheld in a decision released earlier this month, with only provisions on having to seek permits from the supervisory board struck down for being unconstitutional.

With the amendments upheld, Firli and the other KPK new commissioners - who have been under constant criticism from Indonesia’s anti-graft activists for not doing enough - were now free to go ahead with their latest move.

Targeted test

To implement the amended law’s requirement for KPK employees to become part of the civil service, the commissioners issued a new regulation requiring staff to go through the exam administered by the National Civil Service Agency.

KPK deputy chairman Alexandar Marwata claimed the test and interview process were meant to determine an employee’s commitment to the state ideology, the constitution, the nation, and the legitimate government, and to ensure they are free from radical ideas.

But the dubious questions, which former KPK spokesperson Febri Diansyah said were so offensive he was at a loss for words, and the list of who failed point to a hidden agenda behind the process: All this “illustrates their desire to get rid of employees with integrity at all costs,” Novel said.

Aside from Novel, those who flunked include two high-ranking directors, Sujanarko and Giri Suprapdiono, longtime KPK staff who have even been nominated to become commissioners in the past.

Also on the list is Herry Muryanto, the former director of internal control who examined a complaint against Firli back in 2019 for ethical violations; Yudi Purnomo Harahap, the head of the KPK employee forum; and Ambarita Damanik, who sits on the task force hunting down graft fugitives.

Novel, Sujanarko and Yudi Purnomo are often members of special task forces for high-profile cases, such as the massive 2.3 trillion rupiah ($161 million) national ID graft scandal. Before all these changes to the KPK took place in 2019, the commission had already successfully prosecuted seven politicians involved in the case - with the former speaker of the House of Representatives, Setya Novanto, sentenced to 15 years in prison -  and was gearing up to go after more.

Slow death

Although all this has been met with complaints and protests, as with previous attempts to weaken the KPK, the successive hits against the agency - including from within - all now appear to be successfully wearing down the staunch fighters.

Even after the president said those who failed the test shouldn’t be dismissed, the KPK leaders only removed 24 names from the list of 75 who failed, saying the rest can no longer be coached or developed to improve. This, according to critics, shows that the real powers-that-be in the country want this to happen.

“I am deeply disappointed with how ruthlessly the KPK is being brought to its knees. It is ironic that those claiming that 51 employees of the commission must leave because they have failed to pass the ‘national loyalty test’ forget that loyalty to the country is much less proven by a theoretical test than by a concrete and successful fight against corruption,” Drago Kos, from the OECD Working Group on Bribery, told MLex. 

“There is simply no excuse for the actions of the KPK chairman and for the silence of the Indonesian politicians, their intentions are far too obvious.  If the 51 KPK employees will really have to leave, this will not be forgotten by the international community and by anti-corruption activists of the world for many years to come.”

For now, the 51 employees branded too radical to be educated or reformed are set to be terminated by the end of October. While several things may still happen over the next five months to change their fate, what is clear is that the KPK is no longer the feared and highly respected powerful agency it once was.

- Additional reporting by Ben Lucas and Satria Putra

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