JAKARTA – Public outrage and the direct intervention of President Joko Widodo have led to the arrest of a powerful police general accused of ordering the murder and subsequent cover-up of his own aide-de-camp in a dark drama that has transfixed Indonesia.
The case has revealed the existence of cliques, or what political coordinating minister Mohammad Mahfud MD described as “headquarters within headquarters” in the 440,000-strong police force, some of them involving retired officers in high government positions.
Internal affairs commander Chief Inspector-General Ferdy Sambo was taken into custody on August 9, almost a month to the day after the death of Brigadier Nofriasyah Yoshua Hutabarat in what was initially reported to be a shoot-out at Sambo’s official residence.
“The key word here is public outrage, triggered by the family of the victim,” says a source with close police connections. “Jokowi (Widodo) was a cheerleader, but an important one of course.”
In fact, the victim’s family are ethnic bataks from northern Sumatra, known for their outspoken ways and for banding together in times of adversity. Any other ethnic group might have reacted differently and allowed the probe to slide.
Sambo and a patrolman assigned as a driver to the general’s wife, who has reportedly admitted to carrying out the actual shooting, have been charged with premeditated murder, which carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.
Two brigadiers, a Dutch police rank equivalent to senior sergeant, have also been directly implicated in the crime, the motive for which has yet to be explained but is likely to add further embarrassment to the police.
Mahfud indicated that by agreeing to be a whistle-blower, the driver had blown the case wide open. He is now being placed in the witness protection program, first introduced in 2006.
Whether Sambo fired one of the five fatal shots is also unclear, but all the evidence, including phone records and forensic work, apparently points to him being present in the house, located 500 meters from his private residence.
Accompanied by five of his top brass, National Police Chief General Listyo Sigit Prabowo told a press conference that Sambo had fired multiple pistol shots into a wall in an attempt to show there had been a gunfight leading up to Hutabarat’s death.
The two-star general was initially detained for questioning at the paramilitary Police Mobile Brigade headquarters in west Jakarta after allegations surfaced that he had tampered with the crime scene.
More than 30 other policemen of varying ranks are suspected of involvement in the cover-up, including the head of the South Jakarta Precinct, described as a member of Sambo’s inner circle.
“It was a crime of passion, which is why it wasn’t thought out properly by someone who was a trained detective,” says the source. Mahfud only fed public speculation by telling reporters: “The motive can only be read by adults.”
Police claimed the altercation took place after Hutabarat sexually assaulted Sambo’s middle-aged wife in her bedroom, but the facts of the case never made sense, particularly after it was revealed that CCTV cameras in the house were not functioning.
It was only after mounting public pressure – and Widodo’s call for investigators to follow due process – that Prabowo intervened and changed the official account, saying there had been no shoot-out and that Sambo had orchestrated the killing.
The police chief has also been touched by the scandal. It was revealed this week that his expert adviser, Fahmi Alamsyah, had resigned in connection with the case, though police remained tight-lipped about the circumstances.
Pressure is also mounting on retired general Benny Mamoto, the head of the National Police Commission, to step down for disseminating false information. A key figure in tracking down the 2002 Bali bombers, Mamoto was once Sambo’s superior.
“I don’t want this case to erode public trust in the police, that’s the most important thing,” said Widodo, who as president is in direct charge of the force. “We need to maintain its reputation at all costs.”
Appointed in early 2021 and with five years to go before retirement, Prabowo has long had close ties to the president, serving as deputy police chief of the Central Java town of Solo when Widodo was the mayor and later becoming his presidential adjutant.
Given the checkered history of the force since it separated from the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) command structure in 2002, regaining the public trust won’t be easy when the military earns far more respect across the country.
“The alleged cover-up is just the tip of the iceberg of the endemic corruption within the police, a symptom of the systematic failure that allows ‘bad apples’ to thrive in the first place,” the Jakarta Post said in an editorial.
The son of a police general, 49-year-old Sambo is the first graduate from his 1994 Police Academy class to be promoted to field grade, which he is said to have achieved on his own merits.
According to insiders, his mentor when he was rising through the ranks of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was current Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, another long-term Widodo associate who was police chief between 2016 and 2019.
Karnavian had earlier played a leading role in investigations into a series of terrorist attacks over the previous decade, rising briefly to head of the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT), a ministerial-level post.
Sambo was made head of internal affairs in 2020, allegedly assembling a clique of his own in a position where he had access to sensitive personal records. As one source put it: “He knew where all the skeletons lay.”
He was also in charge of a still unresolved investigation into the police slaying of six Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) members after a high-speed night chase on an expressway west of Jakarta in December 2020.
Strangely, the CCTV cameras on the stretch of highway where the shooting took place were out of order.