Top Indonesian ‘Anticorruption’ Judge Is Arrested for Graft

Top court official who once said that those convicted of corruption should have their fingers amputated has himself been arrested and charged with corruption

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Indonesian anticorruption officials escorted Constitutional Court chief justice Akil Mochtar, center, in Jakarta on Oct. 4, 2013

When agents from Indonesian’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) hauled a sobbing judge from his Jakarta residence on Wednesday night, it looked like a re-run of dozens of other arrests in this chronically corrupt country — right down to the huge pile of banknotes (in this case $595,000) found in the crooked official’s home. But Akil Mochtar was not just any crooked official. In a startling demonstration of just how far graft in Indonesia has reached, investigators this time had nabbed the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, which sits side by side with the Supreme Court as one of the two highest courts in the land.

This apex judicial official was charged with accepting bribes to fix two cases of disputed district-head elections. The antigraft agency also arrested a few other people, including a legislator from the Golkar Party — the political party Akil once belonged to — who also serves as treasurer for the Indonesian Ulema Council. After an emergency meeting, the remaining eight court judges are set to ask President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to suspend their chief, who remains in detention.

The news about Akil — the latest big fish nabbed by Indonesia’s antigraft agency, whose zealous investigations have netted a string of corrupt high-ranking officials and prominent politicians — has sparked widespread anger among Indonesians. Not only it has dealt the latest blow to its judicial system, but it has also raised doubt about the legitimacy of many election results and thus the country’s democracy.

“This is very shocking,” Yudhoyono told journalists on Thursday. “Imagine if the [court’s] decision was wrong, imagine if there was a decision that deviated [from what it should be].”

(MORE: Shocking Arrest Underscores Endemic Corruption in Indonesia’s Energy Sector)

Ironically, before his arrest, Akil — a onetime lawmaker who became a Constitutional Court member in 2008 and was appointed to the top position in April — represented himself as an antigraft figure. Apart from writing two books about fighting corruption, he also suggested that those convicted of graft should be rendered destitute and have their fingers chopped off, saying the current punishment was too lenient. Yet graft allegations had dogged Akil for years: he was accused of trying to extort a bribe during the hearing of a district-election dispute in Sumatra in 2010, as well as accepting bribery for establishing a new district in Kalimantan in 2006.

“I am not surprised about his arrest,” says Teten Masduki, co-founder of Indonesia Corruption Watch. “I was surprised, given the stories about him, that Akil could become a member of the Constitutional Court and later its chief justice.”

Founded in 2001, the court has been seen as the product of the reformasi era. It has the right to rule on issues related to the constitution, laws and electoral disputes. Earlier this year, Akil presided over a case brought by lawmaker Rieke Diah Pitaloka and her running mate Teten. They asked the court to disqualify the incumbent governor’s victory in West Java’s gubernatorial election, citing electoral violations — and they lost. Now that Akil has been arrested, a senior cadre from the Indonesian Democratic Party–Struggle, which backed Rieke and Teten in the election, says the pair might have lost because of money politics.

The court scandal “is a serious threat” to democracy, says Ulil Abshar Abdalla, a legislative candidate for the Democratic Party. “With 90% of regional-head elections ending up at the Constitutional Court, and if the court could be bribed … people won’t have any trust.”

(MORE: In Indonesia, Corruption Scandals Plague Antigraft President)

Corruption is endemic in Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy after India and the U.S. Many political parties, including President Yudhoyono’s own Democratic Party and the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, have been mired in corruption and kickback scandals.

Akil is the target of public wrath. The court’s founding chief justice, Jimly Asshidique, has called for KPK prosecutors to seek death penalty for Akil. Many ordinary Indonesians are still coming to terms with the shock.

“The Constitutional Court is one of the important pillars of democracy,” Teten says. “It is the last fortress of the democratic system that we built.”

MORE: How Corruption Is Holding Asia Back