Judges in a courtroom in Indonesia. The country's judiciary is renowned for a culture of graft. Image: Twitter

JAKARTA – If there is ever a potentially lucrative position in Indonesia’s judicial system, it is secretary of the Supreme Court, the presidentially-appointed bureaucrat who controls the administration and, most importantly, the transfers and promotions of lower court judges. 

Indonesians are getting a taste of what a source of corruption it can be with the ongoing investigation into Nurhadi Abdurrahman, 63, who stepped down from the job in 2016 after the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) found 1.7 billion rupiah (US$119,800) stashed in his home.

That appears to have been only the tip of the iceberg. Pulling down a salary of $3,000 per month, Abdurrahman had already raised eyebrows in 2012 when he filed a mandatory wealth report listing 33.4 billion rupiah (US$2.3 million) in assets, ranging from real estate to luxury cars.

Two years later, showing little concern for how it would look or the unwelcome attention it might draw, he handed out 2,500 iPods to guests at the lavish wedding of his daughter to Rizky Herbiyono, the son of a senior Public Works Ministry official.

It has taken six more years, but Abdurrahman and Herbiyono are now under indictment for allegedly accepting 46 billion rupiah in bribes in three Supreme Court cases alone during his five-year term. Investigators have indicated that further money-laundering charges may be pending.

The pair were finally taken into custody on June 2 after being on the run since they were declared fugitives last February. News reports claim they were protected by police bodyguards, changing location 13 times before they were finally tracked down.

Nurhadi Abdurrahman in a file photo. Image: Facebook

In a new innovation known as the “One Roof System,” the administrative, personnel management and financial affairs of the district and appeal courts were officially transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Supreme Court in 2004 as part of well-intentioned efforts to clean up the judiciary and ensure its freedom from political interference.

Drawing on his experience as a 32-year Supreme Court veteran going back to the Suharto era, Abdurrahman was well known among activists for what one called “gaming” the new management system through his long personal relationships with judges and other court administrators.

A former deputy head of the KPK, Bambang Widjojanto has called Nurhadi the “dark prince” of injustice because of the power he was widely alleged to wield over all “transactions” within the court during his tenure. 

A member of the Anti-Judicial Mafia Task Force, formed by the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration in 2009, says Abdurrahman was a focus of their investigations even then, given his connections to judges, politicians and the police.

“Nurhadi was very notorious,” he told Asia Times, noting that while the court registrar allocated cases to the court’s various chambers, it was the secretary who was the final decision-maker. “It was,” he calls it now, “the managing and making use of power.”

Given his reputation, it is not clear why Abdurrahman was appointed to such a key position in the court. But the task force was disbanded at the end of  the Yudhoyono’s presidency in 2014, still struggling to get to grips with the vagaries of a criminal justice system the official believes is as rotten as ever.

Currently with a roster of 47 justices, the Supreme Court is second in seniority to the Constitutional Court and serves as the final court of appeal after cases have passed through the district and high courts. It can also re-open a case if sufficient new evidence is found.

Historically, the judicial mafia’s role in influencing the outcome of some of the 15,000 cases dealt with by the Supreme Court each year is only part of it. “The juice of corruption is not just about cases,” says the activist. “It’s also about managing the transfers and promotions of lower court judges.”

Activists and supporters of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) hold a rally of support at the KPK's headquarters in Jakarta January 23, 2015. Indonesian police on Friday detained the deputy chief of the anti-graft agency over a false testimony case in 2010, raising tensions between two law enforcement bodies that have long had strained relations.REUTERS/Darren Whiteside (INDONESIA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Activists and supporters of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) hold a rally of support at the KPK’s headquarters in Jakarta on January 23, 2015. Photo: Agencies

The long time it took to track down a suspect who appeared to be hiding in plain sight has also once again exposed the downhill trajectory of the KPK, once Indonesia’s most admired institution which had finally begun to gain the upper hand in the war on graft.

Inaugurated last December, the new commission’s approval rating has sunk to 56% in the latest Kompas poll, down from 78.5% in 2015 and over 90% in earlier years when it was in open conflict with the notoriously corrupt police force.

Last year, the outgoing Parliament dealt a severe blow to the KPK’s independence by rushing through an amendment to the 2002 KPK Law under which a five-man supervisory council now has to sign off on all seizures, arrest warrants and phone taps in the course of any investigation.

With a stream of national and regional parliamentarians going to prison for various acts of malfeasance, the House had tried several times to rein in the commission, particularly over the way it was able to conduct wiretaps without outside supervision.

In better days, the KPK successfully prosecuted a number of judges from the lower courts but attempts to expose corruption among the Supreme Court justices have always seemed to end with whistle-blowers being convicted for defamation.

The only Supreme Court justice to be dismissed for an ethics violation is Achmad Yamanie, who in December 2012 was found guilty by an honor council of his peers of conspiring with the court’s registrar to reduce a drug dealer’s life sentence to 12 years’ imprisonment.

But reform remains a work in progress. “There have been improvements, but  ingrained practices of nepotism and bribery still color the promotions process,” Rifqi Assegaf, former head of research for the government’s judicial task force, said in a recent paper.

“Cleaner, but not better,” is the verdict of Dian Rositawati, a member of the Indonesian Institute for Independent Judiciary (LeIP), who was involved in drafting the Supreme Court blueprints that have formed the basis of judicial reform over the past 20 years.

Indonesia’s Supreme Court in Jakarta. Image: Wikimedia

While there has been significant progress in creating a more transparent mechanism to deal with civil cases, that does not apply to the same degree with the criminal justice system where the courts interact with the police and Attorney-General’s Office (AGO).

Part of the problem now is also an ongoing tussle between the Supreme Court’s judges and civilian managers for key positions. Abdurrahman’s replacement, for example, is from a judge’s background, familiar with the law but reportedly lacking in the necessary managerial skills.

In the end, Assegaf says it would be wrong to blame the One Roof System for the judiciary’s many shortcomings. As he points out: “It just means that the Supreme Court needs to adopt a more robust and transparent  management system.”