Indonesia’s police are brutal and corrupt – and apparently untouchable

Report from The Economist

Nov 4th 2010 | Jakarta

TEN years ago, as Indonesia emerged from economic chaos and the military-backed Suharto regime, the government was everywhere planting seeds of democratic reform. Among them was to split the national police from the armed forces in 2000. Ever since Indonesia declared independence in 1945, the police had been the neglected, ill-equipped little brother of the army. The idea of detaching them was to make them solely responsible for law enforcement across the vast Indonesian archipelago, while the armed forces retreated to their barracks.

A decade on, this reform effort has worked—but not necessarily in the ways that its drafters envisioned. The army is relatively quiet these days, having been forced to begin selling its business interests and attempt, somehow, to modernise despite tiny budgets and antiquated equipment. What is more, it has not intervened in the democratic process.

The national police, meanwhile, have indeed managed to assert themselves as the country’s enforcers of law, including taking the initiative against Indonesia’s home-grown Islamist extremists. Unfortunately, capturing or killing terrorist suspects is just about the only thing they are applauded for these days. Most people see the police as a liability: deeply corrupt and untrustworthy.

The past several months have been particularly troubling, even by the force’s low standards. In late June Tempo, a prominent Indonesian news magazine, ran a cover story revealing that more than a dozen senior police officials had suspicious bank accounts, some of which held millions of dollars. A week later an anti-corruption activist who helped expose those bank accounts was brutally beaten by unknown men, apparently in retaliation.

In mid-August the police’s top brass were forced to admit that they had no evidence implicating two senior anti-corruption officials caught up in a sensational graft investigation in 2009. This gave credence to allegations that the police had conspired to frame the pair because of a personal grudge. Separately, on August 31st police officers in Central Sulawesi province fired into a crowd of people protesting the death of a local man in police custody. Five people were killed and 34 injured. In mid-September in West Papua province police killed two men and injured a woman after a traffic dispute boiled over.

Two days before the West Papua incident, the police’s counter-terrorism unit, Densus 88, was accused of torturing independence activists in Maluku province. The unit, funded by the United States and Australia, was alleged to have tortured the activists during a visit by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in early August.

The allegations came just as another Maluku separatist, Yusuf Sipakoly, died in custody of injuries his family claims were caused by torture at the hands of the police. The allegations fit a familiar pattern. Last year Amnesty International released a report detailing a pattern of widespread torture, sexual abuse and exploitation by police, and ill treatment of suspects during arrests, interrogation and detention in Indonesia. And the police have been accused of standing by as minority Christian groups in towns outside Jakarta have been repeatedly harassed in recent weeks by hardline Islamist groups. Police have even been accused of colluding with radicals in local extortion and thuggery rackets.

So far, aside from appointing an “anti-mafia” committee to help clean up the police as well as a corrupt judiciary, the president has shown little interest in reining in the force. Mr Yudhoyono, a retired army general, has refrained from punishing senior police officials for their long list of alleged transgressions. Sometimes he gives the impression of defending them. In early October the president nominated Timur Pradopo, the Jakarta police chief, to run the national force, despite allegations of his involvement in the killings of student demonstrators in the build-up to Suharto’s ejection from power back in May 1998, and again on a university campus later that year.

During his final press conference in late October the outgoing national police chief, Bambang Hendarso Danuri, attempted a mea culpa, apologising, profusely and repeatedly, for the excesses committed on his watch. The public, however, are unlikely to be forgiving. The force has had successes in its counter-terrorism operations, which have seen hundreds of terrorist suspects killed or put behind bars, including some of South-East Asia’s most wanted fugitives. But even that has come at a price. In September armed men attacked a police station in Medan, North Sumatra province, killing three officers, in an apparent retaliation for the capture or killing of terrorist suspects. The public was shocked by the ambush, but there was a notable absence of outward sympathy for the three slain officers. Given the force’s recent conduct, that kind of reaction could become depressingly familiar.

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