23 November 2009

Justice -- Indonesian Style?

Sometimes there are certain events that just leave you shaking your head and saying, "what were they thinking?"

This is one of those moments. In the grand scheme of all things Indonesian the theft of three pods of cacao beans would seemingly rank fairly lowly on the justice meter. This is especially so considering the current turmoil engulfing Indonesia's law enforcement agencies and government with respect to the KPK vs. the police and AGO spat, and the developing mess known as the Bank Century scandal. However, it seems that if you steal three beans then justice is swift, but if you attempt to bribe public officials and / or participate in the suspect use of IDR 6.7 trillion then justice might not be so swift.

Now this is a story of Minah, a 55-year-old woman, who lives in Banyumas, and who helped herself to three cacao bean pods from a local plantation. The total value of her huge haul was about IDR 1,500. To give my non-Indonesian readers an idea of value here, that is about USD 0.15 or AUD 0.18. This is hardly the crime of the century, particularly in the Indonesian context.

However, the plantation and the law enforcement agencies in the relevant area decided that this was the perfect crime for making an example and educating the public about criminal activity, and the need to stop crime in its tracks. I am sure that there are many others out there who would find it hard to believe that this is the crime to educate the masses about the ills of criminal activity.

The Law and Human Rights Minister has gone on the record to suggest that this case is an embarrassment to Indonesia and her law enforcement agencies. Specifically, the Minister believes that law enforcers need to embrace humanitarian principles. Indeed they do, but they should not also turn a blind eye to criminal activity. The question is really one of degree, and particularly how this event of theft could have been dealt with in a more appropriate matter.

Ultimately, the District Court at Purwokerto handed down a 45-day suspended sentence. The sentence stipulates that Minah cannot commit a similar criminal offense within three months from the date of conviction. If she does then she will be required to serve her 45-day sentence.

Probably what the Minister should be more concerned about is that Minah represented herself. The law requires that all people appearing before an Indonesian court be given the opportunity to have legal representation. If an individual is incapable of paying for that legal representation, then it is to be provided on a pro bono basis. And, perhaps even more concerning is the assertion that Minah was encouraged to plead guilty to the crime without legal representation present as the prosecutors stated that it would be easier for her and her treatment would be more lenient.

I do not have a problem with the idea of plea bargaining. However, this needs to be done in a manner that people who have no experience of the legal system are not rail-roaded into making confessions in order to see leniency.

A suspended 45-day sentence is a little harsh for what amounts to an IDR 1,500 theft. This could have been easily settled out of court by getting Minah to pay compensation to the value of the seeds taken. The reason she provided to the court as the motivation for her crime was that she wanted to plant the seeds in order to grow her own cacao plants. Assuming this were true, then the plantation firm missed a perfect opportunity to put together a community cacao development program where the company provides seeds to poor locals, and they could have made Minah the first recipient of that community initiative.

Yet, the infinite wisdom of the pencil-pushing corporate types was, "this is a perfect opportunity for us to educate the masses about small-scale theft!" And, I might add, the perfect opportunity to show the community that we are here only to rape and pillage your land, make large profits, and then leave you with nothing, which sounds a little bit like a public relations nightmare.

With cases like Minah's there is little wonder that Indonesians are generally not convinced that the justice system works fairly for all citizens.


H. Nizam said...


It's good to read your updates once again!

Re: Justice ... Indonesia Style ?
A comprehensive article covering all aspects related to the Minah case in comparison with KPK vs Police/AGO and Bank Century.
It is very sad indeed.

But, reports about such abnormal occurrence shows that Indonesia is becoming a transparent society, very different from the time of authoritarian regime more than 11 years ago.

Rob Baiton said...


It would seem that greater transparency still does not deter some from attempting to bribe public officials, and successfully bribing others.

Such is life!

H. Nizam said...


My history lessons many years ago told me that it took England hundreds of years, since Magna Charta, Habeas Corpus etc, to develop it's democracy.
Yet, Indonesia only start to develop it's democracy 11 years ago.

Please be fair on us.

Rob Baiton said...


I appreciate your arguments. However, the arguments for greater, open, and transparent democracy were being made way, way, way back when Indonesians were agitating for Independence from the Dutch were they not?

I also find the suggestion that I am not being fair reflects the fact that you do not know me personally because I am one of the most fair people you will ever meet when it comes to Indonesia and all things Indonesian :D

The idea that Indonesia would depose Soeharto and everything would be sweet was naive at best. One does not dismantle institutionalized corruption and a culture of patronage formed over 32 years in a mere 12 months or a couple of years.

Indonesia is on the path to democracy, but there are many challenges that lay ahead of her in order to develop to her full potential. Those of us who live in "democratic" countries are always looking to preserve our democracies in ways which reflect out experience and beliefs of what democracy is and means to us.

But, it is not about being fair, it is about being honest. And, honestly this case, and a number of others, highlight just how far Indonesia has come but also how much further there is still to go.

pj said...

According to the article in the post the poor woman had to make repeated trips to the police office and the jaksa's office. Its such a poor use of the public funds in procecuting this case. Is public safety been improved in anty way as a result of this ridiculous exercise. Really if I were the Minister of Law and Human rights I would be seeking resignations/tranfers to remote offices for the prosecutor and police chief. How they sleep I'll never know. Sadly though I fully expect that it will be business as usual.

Rob Baiton said...


Yep, she did.

It is a poor use of funds, but it highlights something much larger here in that it is so much easier to go after the little fish in this sea than the big ones (AKA vested and special interests).

How they sleep is an easy one...in big expensive beds.

Yes, if the Minister really gave the proverbial rat's arse, then some heads would certainly role. After all, we are talking about 1500 rupiah and a 45-day suspended sentence.

anong said...

But they do go after the big fish surely: it's just that we dont hear about what transpires??

Rob Baiton said...


I did not say that they do not go after the big fish. I only said the little ones are easier (to fry perhaps).

oigal said...

"My history lessons many years ago told me that it took England hundreds of years, since Magna Charta, Habeas Corpus etc, to develop it's democracy.
Yet, Indonesia only start to develop it's democracy 11 years ago.'

As they say that dog doesn't hunt..Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia (ok Malaysia is currently going backwards)not mention any number of others all had just as many issues as Indonesia if not more and yet...

Ben said...

Nice post.
Your concern is the same as mine, as you wrote: "perhaps even more concerning is the assertion that Minah was encouraged to plead guilty to the crime without legal representation present as the prosecutors stated that it would be easier for her and her treatment would be more lenient".

Access to legal rep for people like Minah is close to non-existent.
let's face it: how many lawyers you know want to do probono case in rural areas?
Even if there are some good souls out there, who can ensure their safety when they are doing their job defending people like Minah?
(insults, harassments, threats are common and it requires very little money to get some boneheads to do the job.)

Things of course are getting better. People are getting more educated, the press is free so as dark sides get exposed things do change (albeit slow).

What's rather sad is, and this is related to the big fish small fish thing, we seem to focus more on catching the big fish, we fail to protect small people from repression done by our own people.

We prefer one big win, rather than millions of small wins that will help the lives of millions of Minahs...

I've seen many demonstration defending the KPK. I am yet to see one demanding the government to give Minah and millions of people like her legal protection.

Sad, because even if the KPK thing turned out the way we wanted, one or two will go to jail and life goes on.
And we prefer this than providing legal rep to millions and free them from living in fear.

I am not saying we have to choose one over the other.
I am saying we should not choose and we should do both.
But we didn't.

www.lerida-3d.com said...

Thanks so much for this post, pretty worthwhile material.