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Indonesia Makes Gains in Fight Against Corruption

Indonesia's fight to curb corruption has led to a series of headline-grabbing investigations in recent months. VOA's Katie Hamann examines efforts to beat graft, which has plagued the nation for decades.

Indonesia's leap from 143rd to 126th on the Transparency International corruption perception index last month is a small sign of improvement in a country widely viewed as one of the most corrupt in Asia.

The organization grades perceptions of corruption in 180 nations.

Transparency International's Indonesia division says a spate of high-profile prosecutions improved the business community's confidence in efforts to combat corruption.

The Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, leads the campaign against graft. The commission, established in 2002, is an independent body with wide investigative and prosecutorial powers.

The latest case brought the arrest of Competition Commission member Mohammad Iqbal, who was caught taking a $66,000 bribe from the director of a television network.

In August Iqbal and fellow commissioners ruled that the network was not guilty of monopoly practices in its broadcasts of the English Premier League soccer matches.

Fellow commissioner, Sjamsul Maarif, says he is shocked at the arrest, but says the commission will not reconsider past decisions.

"In terms of our decision, I think our office has declared that the decision has been ruled," he said. "So maybe [a] businessperson who feel[s] dissatisfied with our decisions, maybe they can go to district court and add this current situation to their argumentation, it depends on them."

The KPK, which thus far, has a 100 percent conviction rate, has reached into some of the highest offices in the land.

Last week, Aulia Pohon, the father-in-law of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's eldest son, testified in the corruption court that he was in charge when the central bank distributed more than three million dollars in bribes to parliament members. The bank wanted legislators to pass favorable laws in 2004.

It recently earned public praise for the conviction of a former senior prosecutor with the Attorney General's office.

Judges sentenced Urip Tri Gunawan to 20 years in jail - more than twice the length of any previous corruption sentences.

Gunawan was found guilty of accepting a $660,000 bribe from businesswomen Artalyta Suryani. The money was a reward for helping close an investigation of bank tycoon Sjamsul Nursalim. He is wanted for embezzling $3 billion during the Asian financial crisis 10 years ago, in a case known as the BLBI scandal.

Suryani was earlier sentenced to five years in prison. Nursalim fled Indonesia and is believed to be living in Singapore.

Former Australian diplomat Kevin Evans has monitored Indonesian corruption for years and is studying politics at the University of Indonesia. He says the KPK has mounted a heroic effort against corruption.

"The prime message being sent is that the dirty little deals that you do together may not necessarily stick. So that the kindly faced bureaucrat that's happy to process you for privileged whatever can't necessarily deliver anymore," he said. "But I think quite clearly the KPK is above them at this stage. And the really wonderful thing that I find is that the integrity of the investigation and the prosecution has been unimpeachable."

The Attorney General's office has resisted calls to reopen the case against Nursalim and others implicated in the bank scandal, saying the conviction of the prosecutor is not new evidence.

Danang Widoyoko is the deputy coordinator of Indonesia Corruption Watch. He says the Attorney General's office has no credibility in corruption cases.

"The KPK should follow up, to take over the handling of the BLBI cases," he said. "I mean the corruption by Urip happened in the prosecuting of the BLBI cases. In this case the attorney general does not have enough public trust anymore to prosecute the BLBI cases."

While the corruption court has received accolades, the country's regular courts are criticized for their lackluster response to graft.

According to Indonesia Corruption Watch, of 125 recent cases filed by the Attorney General's staff, a third were dismissed and more than half of those jailed received sentences of less than two years.

Despite Indonesia's improved ranking on the Transparency International list, Danang Widoyoko at Corruption Watch says low-level corruption remains a daily problem.

"The data gathered by T.I. is perception among the business community, perception among the expatriates on Indonesia's level of corruption. … If we compare with the daily situation here, people are still complaining because corruption still exists," he said. "Everyday we still see corruption by traffic police. We have to deal with corruption to get licenses and to get other government services."

And there is a high cost. Surveys indicate that Indonesian households spend an average of one percent of their income on bribes, and the poor pay disproportionately more. The government estimates that corruption costs it several billion dollars in losses each year.