A fugitive Indonesian businessman known locally as 'The Joker' is seeking to overturn his conviction for embezzlement in the 2009 Bali Bank scandal. Image is used for representational purposes. Image: Youtube

JAKARTA – Indonesia is replete with stories of the rich and powerful evading the corrupted short arms of the law.

Take, for instance, the notorious 1996 case of fraudster Eddy Tansil who failed to come home from the office one evening after being regularly allowed out of jail to attend to business matters.

Tansil, then serving a 20-year term at Jakarta’s top-security Cipinang Prison, is living in China by most accounts, enjoying the fruits of the US$420 million he embezzled from Bank Pembangunan Indonesia (Bapindo).

The bank subsequently collapsed and became part of Bank Mandiri, now the biggest state bank. The 67-year-old fugitive warded off extradition and has never sought to sneak home – as far as anyone knows.

But if the amazing case of another convicted fraudster, 68-year-old businessman Joko Tjandra, also known as ‘the Joker’, is any guide, nothing is impossible in Indonesia’s corrupt law enforcement system when memories fade and the right palms are greased.

A key figure in the diversified Mulia Group, Tjandra fled to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea in 2009 only a day before being sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for facilitating the transfer of $78 million from Bank Bali to a private company under his control.

Joko Tjandra, also known as ‘the Joker’, in a file photo. Image: Facebook

The money was supposedly in payment for collecting $146 million in debts from three failed banks under the care of the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency (IBRA) in the wake of the 1997-98 crash that revealed huge flaws in Indonesia’s financial system.

Officials now acknowledge that Tjandra slipped back into the country three months ago, had little trouble arranging a new identity card and a new passport under his real name, and audaciously filed an appeal of his 11-year-old case in the South Jakarta District Court.

It was only weeks later that authorities became aware of his presence. But even now they have still been unable to track all his movements, further evidence, many believe, of the widespread involvement of high-rankingpolice and immigration officers and other powerful figures.

Armed with a Papua New Guinea passport issued under the name of Joe Chan in May 2012, Tjandra has reportedly been commuting between Port Moresby and Malaysia, despite both countries having extradition treaties with Indonesia.

Moreover, his name was quietly removed from Interpol’s Red Notice list, which currently includes the names of more than 7,300 international fugitives loose across the world.

Although Tjandra is now back on the Indonesian immigration blacklist, the Interpol National Central Board (NCB) claimed Tjandra’s Red Notice was withdrawn because the Attorney General’s Office had not sought an extension since 2014. 

Indonesia’s only successful extradition of a high-profile figure in recent times has been that of Maria Pauline Lumowa, 62, on the run for 17 years for allegedly embezzling $118 million from state-owned Bank Negara International (BNI).

In fact, it was considered such a coup that Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly flew to Belgrade last week to take formal custody of Lumowa, reportedly a Dutch citizen since 1979, who was arrested in the Serbian capital last year.

Hartawan Aluwi in police custody in Indonesia in a file photo. Image: Twitter

The last high-profile fugitive to be apprehended before her was Hartawan Aluwi, 58, deported from Singapore in 2016 after his residential permit expired.

He is serving 14 years in jail for his involvement in the 2008 Bank Century scandal, which saw the government pour in $710 million in bailout funds after the heist.

Red Notices are valid for five years and can either be public, or kept secret known only to law enforcement. A random search of the Interpol database failed to come up with any of the 40 graft fugitives still listed by Indonesian Corruption Watch.

Among them are Tansil, five suspects from the Bank Century case, seven involved in the 2004 Bank Global International fraud and eight wanted for the misuse of funds distributed by Bank Indonesia following the late 1990s crash.

The finger-pointing in the Tjandra case is well underway. “There’s a lot of commissioners (colonels) who are really sweating on this,” says  one source close to the police. “They are all worried about getting dragged into it.” 

In an effort to repair some of the damage, International Relations and Transnational Crimes Division chief Inspector General Napoleon Bonaparte  and NCB secretary Brigadier General Nugroho Wibowo have both been sacked from their posts.       

The heat is also on Brigadier General Prasetijo Utomo, a skilled auditor and white-collar crime specialist who headed a bureau in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) that oversees the work of civilian tax and stock market investigators.

Tjandra carried a recommendation letter signed by Utomo and was described as a bureau “consultant” on a Covid-free certificate issued by the police Medical and Health Department, which is required for citizens to travel.

Brigadier General Prasetijo Utomo takes questions from reporters, July 2020. Image: Twitter

The fugitive’s presence in Indonesia came to light after Attorney-General Sanitiar Burhanuddin acknowledged in a parliamentary hearing that Tjandra had appeared before the South Jakarta District Court on June 8 to challenge his conviction.

But how and exactly when he entered the country remains a mystery.

On June 19, Utomo is alleged to have accompanied him on a private jet from Jakarta to Pontianak where direct flights are normally available to Kuala Lumpur and Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysia.

It was not the first time, by most accounts. The coordinator of the Indonesia Anti-Corruption Society, Boyiman Saimin, claims Tjandra has frequently flown between Kuala Lumpur and Pontianak, his birthplace.

He could also have crossed the land border into Malaysia, about five hours drive northeast of Pontianak. But whatever route he used, immigration officials say he never used his new passport, which has since been canceled.

The Bank Bali scandal sent shock waves through then-president B.J.Habibie’s already-embattled government because Tjandra and his business partner, former Golkar Party deputy treasurer Setya Novanto, were two of his close associates.

Tjandra fought off two prosecution attempts, in both cases because the courts decided it was a civil case. Eight years later, the Supreme Court upheld a new appeal, but the day before the verdict came down Tjandra escaped the country in a private plane.

Novanto, now 64, was never charged and went on to become Golkar chairman and Parliament speaker before he ran into the law again. This time there was no evading a 15-year prison sentence for masterminding the theft of $170 million from a national electronic identity card program.

Breaking at a crucial point in 1999, the Bank Bali scandal posed a quandary for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which together had contributed a quarter of the $40 billion rescue package put together to pull Indonesia out of its financial mess.

International lenders had to be worried if the life-saving flow of money necessary to salvage Indonesia’s banks and help its poorest people was ending up in the pockets of the same corrupt officials who helped create the crises in the first place.

Bank Indonesia has been called upon to bail out corruption-ravaged banks. Image: Facebook

The election of President Abdurrahman Wahid helped clean up the scandal and restart international aid, but it still left questions on how financial and judicial institutions could be reformed in a way that, as one legal scholar put it, “would lead to more responsible behavior.”

“There’s a good chance the Tjandra case involves higher-ups, but we don’t know where it is all going,” says former attorney-general Marzuki Darusman. “It may only focus on the bad apples and won’t be seen as a systematic and institutionalized issue.”

Certainly, it has shown once again that despite dogged reform efforts, money and power still rules Indonesia’s law enforcement system 20 years after the Bank Bali scandal. It had been conveniently forgotten – and so had the man they called ‘the Joker.’