JAKARTA It has put central bankers and government officials behind bars and is easily Indonesia's most feared judicial body. But the corruption court, an important weapon in the fight against graft, is now under threat itself.
Politicians, some of whom have much to fear from the court, are meddling with the panel of judges and even trying to close it down completely.
That could threaten one of the more successful anti-graft campaigns in a Southeast Asian nation that year after year ranks among the world's most corrupt.
Widespread graft deters investors who otherwise might pour billions of dollars into developing Indonesia's abundant oil, gas, and mineral deposits or improving its shoddy infrastructure. That is one reason Indonesian economic growth tends to languish behind economic behemoths like China and India.
"The battle against corruption is still a long way from over, but at least the public can see it has gone in the right direction," said Emerson Yuntho of Indonesia Corruption Watch.
Set up in 2004, the court -- housed in a shabby building in central Jakarta with broken glass windows and damp, smelly courtrooms -- has a number of features that have made it far more effective in punishing the corrupt than Indonesia's regular court system has been.
One is its system of appointing three ad hoc, or outside, judges out of a total of five on the panel. These ad hoc judges are picked from outside the court system and include academics and other professionals.
In a country where the judiciary itself is rated among the most corrupt institutions, these outsiders are considered more independent.
Armed with dossiers of evidence from the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, the corruption court has had a 100 percent conviction rate. The average sentence, for the 90 or so defendants who have been tried. is about four years, according to Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW).
By contrast, the normal courts treat corruption cases much more leniently. Last year, 62 percent of those charged with corruption were let off by the public courts, up from 57 percent in 2007 and 31.4 percent in 2006. Sentences are generally lighter, with an average of just under six months, ICW said.
"We need the (corruption) court, because the public court is ineffective," said Budi Effendi, an unemployed man in Jakarta.
"But maybe we should follow China's example, recover the stolen money and sentence the corrupt to death to serve as a deterrent."
NO LONGER UNTOUCHABLE ?
Scores of senior officials, who under previous governments would have been considered virtually untouchable, have been sentenced by the corruption court including a former governor of Aceh province, Abdullah Puteh, and a leading prosecutor, Urip Tri Gunawan, who took bribes to drop a graft case involving a tycoon.
Several senior central bankers including a former governor, Burhanuddin Abdullah, were found guilty of making illegal payments from a foundation to several members of parliament in order to influence amendments to legislation.
And on Wednesday, the corruption court sentenced one of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's in-laws, former central bank official Aulia Pohan, to four-and-a-half years in prison for his role in approving illegal payments to members of parliament.
Eight members of parliament have been sentenced by the corruption court, and others still await verdicts. That, many suspect, is why parliament has delayed passing the key legislation required to ensure the court continues to exist.
However, a member of parliament in charge of discussing the bill denied any deliberate move to thwart the court.
"There is absolutely no attempt from the parliament to slow down or to intentionally not finish (the legislation)," Dewi Asmara, the head of a special committee discussing the bill, told Reuters.
She said issues holding up the bill include whether to keep the current ratio of three ad hoc judges to two career judges, or whether to reverse the numbers which, many believe, would make the panel less independent.
President Yudhoyono, often known by his initials SBY, was elected in 2004 on promises to fight graft and is seeking re-election on July 8 in a campaign where his track record in tackling corruption is under scrutiny.
The Wednesday decision against his in-law could help Yudhoyono's campaign by showing a commitment to fight such crimes regardless of who is involved.
"Of course Aulia Pohan's detention, followed by a charge and a sentence, will increase SBY's reputation in fighting graft and law enforcement," said Arbi Sanit, an academic at the University of Indonesia.
Yudhoyono has said he would issue a presidential decree to ensure the court's continued existence if parliament fails to pass the legislation before October.
Without that, the prime anti-corruption agency, or KPK, would be powerless when it comes to prosecuting suspects, and the public courts would once again take over such cases.
"I suspect, like others, that this bill will not be approved by its deadline of December 19. Why? Because how could parliament do that? It's like digging their own grave," said Teguh Hariyanto, a judge at the corruption court.
"If SBY whose selling point is corruption eradication got elected again, he should at least have the guts to do something if this corruption court law is not approved," he added.
(Editing by Sara Webb and Jerry Norton)