Policeman guards as former Indonesian parliament speaker Setya Novanto (C) attends court for his verdict in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 24, 2018.
Policeman guards as former Indonesian parliament speaker Setya Novanto (C) attends court for his verdict in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 24, 2018.

JAKARTA, INDONESIA - The sentencing of Indonesia’s infamous former Speaker of the House, Setya Novanto, is seen as a turning point in the fight against corruption in the 20-year-old democracy.

This week, a Jakarta Corruption Court sentenced Novanto to 15 years in jail for embezzlement, after a long pursuit by officials that saw the politician check himself into a hospital twice and be involved in a mysterious car crash. Novanto is one of the highest profile Indonesian politicians to be successfully prosecuted for graft.  

Novanto was convicted of heading a $170 million graft scheme that sought a 10 percent cut from a company that was contracted to manufacture electronic ID cards. That Novanto even showed up to his court dates in the “e-KTP” scandal was a sign that this case was different. Popularly known as Setnov, he had been linked to at least eight previous corruption cases in his two decades of political life, but never appeared in court until last year.

“The recent decision against  [him] is really a new milestone for anti-corruption efforts in Indonesia,” said Adnan Topan Husodo of Indonesia Corruption Watch, an NGO. “He is a very slippery politician … and his arrest is a testament to the power of the Corruption Eradication Commission.”

No more 'Mr. Teflon'

The scale of Novanto’s scandals was larger than life, and his impunity seemed like to demonstrate how entrenched graft and corruption have become in the world’s third most-populous country.

In 2015, for instance, he is alleged to have tried to extort $4 billion in shares from the Freeport mining company. Novanto resigned from his position as speaker, but then successfully argued that the case against him was based on inadmissible evidence, and was restored to his position in 2016. He resigned for good last November, throwing his political party Golkar into turmoil.

“Novanto is not the first party chairman to be arrested for graft,” said Andreas Harsono, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Jakarta. “The Prosperous Justice Party and Partai Demokrat have also experienced this.” But Golkar, also the party of former military dictator Suharto, remains the main opposition to President Joko Widodo’s PDIP. “So it is very significant,” he said.

“It has been convincingly proven that Setya Novanto has committed corruption together with many others,” said Judge Wanto, head of the Jakarta Corruption Court panel that sentenced him on Tuesday. He will be barred from public office for five years after completing his jail time.

Indonesian House Speaker Setya Novanto speaks duri
FILE - Indonesian House Speaker Setya Novanto speaks during press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 18, 2017.

Speaking to reporters at another court appearance on Friday, Novanto would only say the word “stress.”

“To be honest, 15 years is not enough for what he did,” said Adnan. “But his efforts to spook the jury with his hospital visit and so on made it difficult to give him a longer sentence. … I think it would be more fair if he had a life sentence.”

Resurgent KPK

The Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, is an independent body tasked with bringing egregious instances of political corruption to justice. Indonesia’s House of Representatives has long tried to weaken the commission with legislative measures.

“But after the Setnov decision, political will against KPK will weaken significantly,” said Adnan.

Indonesia’s democracy rating has suffered in recent years in the estimation of groups like Freedom House crackdowns on freedom of expression, pervasive corruption, and the rise of hardline religious-political forces.

But the Novanto saga will likely be seen internationally as a victory for the rule of law.  “Indonesia’s corruption problems don’t end with one man,” said Harsono, “but this is a good starting point.”