JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s parliament on Tuesday passed a controversial corruption court bill that anti-graft watchdogs said was likely to undermine the fight against endemic corruption in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.
Indonesia needs billions of dollars in domestic and foreign investment, but corruption, red tape and an unpredictable legal system all serve as deterrents.
The bill relaxed a previous rule on the composition of the panel of judges, dealing a blow to the court’s independence. The court has had a 100 percent success rate due in part to the use of ad hoc judges and their majority on the panel.
The panel of judges at the corruption court previously had to consist of two career judges and three ad hoc judges, helping ensure independence. Under the new law, the head of a district court or the supreme court can decide the panel’s makeup.
“This will mean less independence in the corruption court and gives more power to the district court,” said Adnan Topan Husodo of Indonesia Corruption Watch, an independent body, adding the group may file an appeal to the Constitutional Court.
Husodo said that under the new law, suspects could easily bribe the head of a district court to get the judge they wanted. The judiciary is rated among Indonesia’s most corrupt bodies.
The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which investigates and prosecutes suspects, and the corruption court, which tries them, have proved successful weapons in the fight against graft.
Officials, businessmen, central bankers and parliamentarians have been jailed as a result of their work, and both institutions have made many enemies who have tried to reduce their powers.
However, attempts to include restrictions on the KPK in the corruption court bill were dropped, and the agency will continue to prosecute suspects and carry out wiretaps.
The bill was essential to extend the lifespan of the court. But while President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said he is committed to curbing graft, other politicians are not and his own government proposed changes weakening the court.
“The passing of the corruption court bill is important because it will safeguard our credibility in the upholding of the law and eradication of corruption,” said Justice Minister Andi Mattalatta.
“Corruption damages the social order of our country.”
The law paves the way for Indonesia’s 33 provincial capitals to have a corruption court. There is currently only one in Jakarta.
Yudhoyono, who was re-elected in July partly on the back of his commitment to tackle corruption, had urged that the bill not be rushed through parliament in a form that hurt his efforts.
He promised to crack down on graft when first elected in 2004 and has made some progress, thanks to the KPK and the corruption court. The perception he is serious about graft has helped boost the rupiah currency , stocks and bonds.
Indonesia has also climbed up some rankings measuring graft and the ease of doing business, albeit from low levels.
But some lawmakers have been keen to limit the KPK’s role in investigating cases and give the authority to prosecute back to the Attorney General’s office, another body in need of reform.
Several lawmakers have already been sent to jail by the corruption court. Others are awaiting trial, prompting corruption watchdogs to warn that this was why members of parliament wanted to curb the powers of the court and the KPK.
Adding to concerns about the battle against graft, the KPK appears to have been weakened in a power struggle with the police and faces a power vacuum after police named three officials as suspects in criminal investigations.
Editing by Dean Yates
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