JAKARTA, INDONESIA —
The speaker of Indonesia’s House of Representatives is finally under armed guard after eluding arrest for corruption during a bizarre few days during which he went “missing,” had his house raided, crashed his car into a telephone pole and circulated photos of being admitted into a hospital.
It is the latest development in Setya Novanto’s career of extensive corruption and equally extensive efforts to elude arrest, or even trial, for corruption.
The Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) went to Novanto’s house in South Jakarta on Wednesday night but he was nowhere to be found. His lawyer claimed he was not in touch with him but was “100 percent confident that he’s in Jakarta [as] he’s not a coward.”
Novanto is under investigation for his role in a national scandal over digital ID cards; the KPK has already summoned him 11 times for this case alone. He is accused of asking for a 10 percent cut from a company with a government contract to make the cards.
Novanto had last been seen on Wednesday morning at the House, where he delivered a speech during a plenary session. The KPK warned him to turn himself in within 24 hours or be placed on a wanted list.
On Thursday night, it was announced that his car had crashed and he had checked into Permata Hijau hospital in South Jakarta. His lawyer said Friday he was put under armed guard at a hospital by anti-graft investigators. Despite having located him, the KPK cannot legally detain anyone who is sick or under medical treatment, so hurdles remain to his actual questioning.
Career based on corruption
Novanto has been linked to at least eight corruption cases in his 19-year political career, which started just after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, as a democratic era began in Indonesia.
Among them is a charge of attempting to embezzle $4 billion from Freeport, the American mining company, in 2015, a scandal for which he was briefly removed from his position as Speaker of the House and then reinstated when evidence against him was ruled inadmissible.
With the latest ID-card scandal, Novanto has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid a court appearance. Last month, he released a photo of himself in a hospital, claiming that he suffered vertigo from playing ping-pong. The photo was widely shared and ridiculed on social media, but took a dark turn when one Indonesian woman was arrested under the defamation law for sharing an Instagram meme making fun of Novanto.
Despite the seemingly glaring extent of Novanto’s corruption, there are many social and political costs to his trial and arrest.
In August, a Los Angeles-based witness who had evidence of Novanto’s involvement in the ID-card affair killed himself, reportedly because he was terrified by the fact that his name had been made public in relation to Novanto.
“He is basically the elite's bagman. He greases a lot of palms,” said one Indonesian security scholar. “And he is also politically critical as he leads the pro-Jokowi Golkar Party. If he is arrested, Golkar will be taken over by Kalla-Bakrie coalition [the current Vice President Jusuf Kalla and the prominent businessman Aburizal Bakrie] and and it will make Jokowi's life difficult in 2019. And if Novanto opens his mouth, a lot more people will end up in jail. So it is a very touchy issue.”
The Golkar Party, which is currently led by Novanto, has assured him of legal help if his case is brought to trial.
Embarrassment for KPK
Novanto’s career reflects the challenges of democracy in Indonesia, where the rampant corruption of the Suharto dictatorship created precedents for graft and embezzlement that persist well into the democratic era.
If Novanto manages to evade the charge again, it will be a huge blow for the KPK, one of the most popular institutions in Indonesia, which has nevertheless faced major budget cuts and threats from political elites. In April, a KPK investigator suffered an acid attack one day after the KPK announced that Novanto was under investigation for the ID Card scandal.
On the other hand, some observers think the melodramatic pitch of Novanto’s escapades and the degree of public outrage means this could be the first time a charge manages to stick.
There is a growing public consensus that Novanto must answer for his actions, which should help the KPK, according to University of Indonesia political scientist Arbi Sanit.
“I suspect that the KPK will work in the following way: following KPK's assignment, Novanto will be added to the wanted persons list, then admitted to the Police Hospital and examined by police officers, and will be disallowed from seeking medical treatment abroad due to [a] ban,” predicted Sanit.
Meanwhile, a citizen’s group called the Indonesian Anti-Corruption Society is trying to do its own small part by offering a prize of 10 million rupiah for "anyone who can provide valid information of Novanto Novanto's existence to KPK or Police or other law enforcement apparatus so that KPK can arrest Novanto Novanto.”
It’s not much, about $740, but KPK will need all the help it can get.