Two die in student protests sparked by corruption law

A week after Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) passed the Corruption Eradication Commission bill into law on 5 September, university students from Jakarta and elsewhere gathered in front of the House building in the capital to demand the new law be abrogated, saying it threatened democracy.

The student protests have escalated into their second week with hundreds of students rallying in front of parliament. Violent clashes have led to hundreds of arrests, dozens of injured and the deaths of two students – one of them died of bullet wounds, according to police reports.

The new law curtails the power of the Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian acronym KPK, which tackles graft in the country. Under the previous law, KPK was an independent body.

In the amended version, KPK is part of the executive, putting more power in the hands of Indonesia’s president.

Other legal issues have been highlighted during the student rallies. Among them is a labour law that students regard as siding with employers; and a domestic violence eradication law which they say intervenes too far into family matters.

Other new legislation targeted by students include the overhaul of the criminal code, which would outlaw insulting the president, adultery and all sex outside of marriage, which could lead to jail terms.

In the face of the protests, Indonesia’s parliament agreed on 30 September to postpone the criminal code bill. But students are not backing down, saying they want the new KPK law repealed.

“The new KPK law has a lot of problems. It disempowers the KPK,” said Gregorius Anco, head of the law faculty’s student senate at Atma Jaya Catholic University. “We want the new law abrogated. That is not in line with our spirit of reformation,” he asserted.

Arrests made by the KPK in the past included regents or municipal officials, well-connected politicians and ministers. Several of them are even President Joko Widodo’s close allies and supporters. Widodo is commonly known as Jokowi.

Muhammad Romahurmuziy, chairman of the United Development Party, a top Widodo loyalist, was arrested last month on alleged bribery charges. Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, minister of religious affairs, is now under KPK’s investigation for the same case. Imam Nahrawi, youth and sport minister, was arrested more recently for alleged misuse of IDR26.5 billion (US$1.9 million).

Protests expand beyond Jakarta

The early September rally in Jakarta was followed by demonstrations in major Indonesian cities such as Surabaya, Yogyakarta, Bandung, Makassar, Kendari, Bandar Lampung, Medan and Banda Aceh, and have involved thousands of students. The student rallies voice the same demand – the abrogation of the new KPK law.

But some rallies go further, demanding that President Jokowi step down for the good of the country. Marching to the House building in Jakarta, they chanted: “Turun turun turun Jokowi. Turun Jokowi sekarang juga” (Step down, step down, step down Jokowi this very moment).

“All this mess comes down to one person. That is Jokowi,” a student said.

In Jakarta, senior high school students joined the rally and fought police with sticks and stones. School students in other cities followed suit, joining university student rallies in their hometowns.

Police attempts to disperse the rallies have led to violent clashes. A number of students were injured. Two students, Imawan Randi, 21, and Muhammad Yusuf Kardawi, 19, who attended Haluoleo University in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, died after police shot them during a demonstration in Kendari on 27 September.

The deaths led to an outcry with Jokowi ordering an investigation.

Students have denied being used by the government’s political opponents. “We are just concerned with the future of fighting corruption in this country,” said Andi Prayoga, head of the Jakarta Student Executive Body, during a discussion on the substance of the student rally in Jakarta over the last weekend.

Andi admitted he and other students engaged in discussions with lecturers and academics just to clear up the issues.

“Yes, we have their support, but not for political interests,” he said.

New law criticised

The new law has come under heavy criticism. Currently KPK works under the control and direction of the advisory body whose members are elected by the House of Representatives. In the amended version, the advisory body is replaced by a supervisory board whose members are appointed by the president and are responsible to the president.

Another controversial point is the status of the KPK’s employees, who were previously employed for their skill, knowledge and capability, and not because they were government employees.

“Those who are appointed by the president and government employees can hardly be independent, when KPK needs professional, dedicated and purely independent staff,” said Zainur Rohman, a researcher at the Center for Anti Corruption Studies at Gadjah Mada University.

The new law also states that wiretapping should only be done with the permission of the supervisory board, which should be obtained at least six months before execution. “Somewhere along the way, the culprits would become aware that they are going to be set up. Then the wiretapping would never happen,” said Alexander Marwata, the current deputy commissioner of KPK.

Many suspects have been arrested through the so-called Operasi Tangkap Tangan (OTT), which literally means ‘caught red-handed ’, as a result of wiretapping suspects’ conversations.

But while the students stand with one voice, academics are divided.

Legal expert Irman Putra Sidin said KPK is subject to people’s control. “No institution has absolute power. Institutions’ power should be limited. And a way to do it is through the supervisory board.”

State administration law expert Muhammad Rullyandi said that the new KPK regulation is aimed at making the commission better. “It makes the commission’s workers comply with one system,” he said.

“Law amendment is a normal thing. We just cannot turn a blind eye [to the fact] that KPK law has some loopholes, such as making somebody a suspect first, then searching for evidence,” he added.

Some had begun to believe the KPK had become too powerful and might not be good for the country. “KPK is a human organisation. It can do wrong. But with the power it has now, it is as if it can’t,” said Komarudin Mangunjaya, a Jokowi supporter.

Moeldoko, head of the Presidential Staff Office, even said “KPK can inhibit investment”, without elaborating. “Don’t think it’s a godly organisation. No. They are human. They can be wrong, and we should correct it,” he said.

The amendments, passed into a new law on 5 September by a plenary session of the current House of Representatives, whose term ended on 30 September, were, as Moeldoko put it, to improve the KPK.

But according to Abdul Fickar Hadjar, senior lecturer at the private Trisakti University in Jakarta, the House wanted the KPK law amendment in the first place because many House members are suspected of corruption. Out of 432 arrested by KPK recently, 205 are legislators.

According to Indonesia Corruption Watch, about two dozen legislators sitting in the 2014-19 legislature are being or have been pursued by the KPK.

Fickar said: “The president is also unhappy with the fact that among those arrested are his close allies and loyalists. That might be the reason why the president was so quick to approve the amendment, just two days after the House submission.”