Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Making an ass of the law

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Spend a day in an Indonesian courtroom during the recent wave of political trials and you will probably leave at the end of the day hot, sweaty and confused. Make a habit of it and cynicism becomes the order of the day.

IRIP News Service

The trial's opening is always a standing room only affair, thanks in part to the intelligence agents or 'intel' who these days always arrive first and fill up the front pews. It's not hard to find the bulky middle-aged men or bored young ones, sporting short military haircuts and an odd assortment of 'Sunday bests' including batik shirts and leather jackets. They will often pass the time of day by picking each others' pockets. It would be funny if you were not always closely guarding your own.

Welcome to the Central Jakarta State Court, home to most of the recent political trials in Jakarta and some of the capital's most adept pickpockets who operate with impunity despite the presence of hundreds of police and troops and ID checks, bag and sometimes body searches to enter the compound at the time of any political trial.

Candid camera

Coming into the low ceilinged courtrooms on levels two or three of the 1960s blocky and nondescript whitewashed complex, don't forget to smile because you're on candid camera. The man with the Handycam is not going to submit your picture to the Funniest Home Video show. You're probably not laughing at this stage, not sure who among the people in plain clothes is friend or foe.

But don't get too self conscious. In the Central Jakarta court you will soon be soaked in sweat as the two lazy fans are not nearly enough to circulate air in the chambers, which can sometimes be crammed with more than 200 people. If you are planning a visit, take a tip from Megawati Soekarnoputri and bring your own paper fan.

Outside on the balcony the Mobile Brigade troopers, who never seem to know what they are doing there, loiter twirling their rattan canes, passing the time with more intel or 'Pentium' who carry their walkie-talkies subtly wrapped in the morning's Pos Kota or Suara Karya.


Inside the court, on both sides, you'll find the journalists standing in the isles with their mobile phones, jockeying for position near the windows and loudspeaker where air circulates. If the sound system is switched on, the proceedings can be heard. But Central Jakarta Court has seemingly only one set of microphones, which are seldom used. Acoustics mean the hacks often spill into the area behind the prosecutors, the accused and the lawyers, straining to hear what is being said by soft voiced judges, or by the accused who sit with their back to the spectators' gallery.

The diplomats are easy to spot, last to arrive and first to leave, but their presence keeps the system on its toes, producing a brand of mass produced justice that would have done Henry Ford proud.

Round one

Round one goes to the head judge, generally one of three sleepy looking figures sitting up on the green felt topped bench, undoubtedly sweating more profusely than anyone else in their black gowns with red and white trim around the shoulders. 'Are you in good health?', they ask, showing mock concern for the accused's welfare. If the judge truly wants to set a farcical tone for his proceedings, he will insist or re-asking questions such as 'what is your gender?' until rebellious defendants answer. Stupid questions are a judge's prerogative and defendants must suffer them.

Next, buckle down for the prosecutor's reading of the indictment. This formally gets the hearing underway and here a combination of stamina and super-human concentration is required. The indictment, sometimes running up to 100 pages long, quotes all the clauses of Criminal Code and Criminal Procedures Code that the accused is said to have violated in a long winded justification of why they have been brought to trial for doing things those who founded the Indonesian Republic considered their birthright.

Colonial law

In an atmosphere rich with irony, the recent trials of spreading hatred use a law created in the Dutch colonial period to suppress the nascent independence movement. The prosecutor, usually a lifeless and bland figure showing little facial expression, drones throughout the inevitably lengthy indictment, never deviating from the heavy legalistic prose and excessively long sentences of the document obviously produced in the back rooms by someone else. They seem to possess no independent comprehension of what they are reading, are often unable to answer questions on the document without consulting their superiors. Like the foot soldiers of oppression the world over - they are just following their orders.


This is the time you are most likely to catch the judges asleep. However, watch closely as they are masters at masking their drowsiness with an inactive pen poised in one hand, the other studiously under their chin as they slump in their high backed leather upholstered chairs. Everybody else who is lucky enough to have a seat makes do with hard wooden benches. The startled way the judges react to the opening of an unoiled door by an attendant or the scrape of a bench by a spectator, gives them away. Like everybody else, the soporific atmosphere has caught them.

In the next session, the defence led by idealist lawyers tilts against the wind putting up spirited cases. They inevitably point out the sloppy way in which the indictment has been put together despite months of preparations, and the legal contradictions upon which it is based. The prosecution has consistent problems with getting people's names right and quoting the appropriate articles.

The defence points to the roots of the political laws in Dutch colonial law and its inappropriateness in a modern late 20th century society which calls itself a democracy of sorts.How a lawyer, particularly an idealistic one, survives in a legal system where form rules over substance and the rule of law is but a distant dream is one of the eternal fascinations of these trials.

The next scene in this legal pantomime is when the panel of judges have to make a decision on whether the trial should go ahead or not. Brushing aside all the concerns of the defence about the legality of arrest, about the detention or the suitability of holding a trial, the panel decides, with the inevitability of a runaway steamroller heading down hill, that the trial will proceed. No-one but the uninitiated is surprised.

Memory loss

The following evidence taking is the most amusing part of the trial. It was at this stage in the recent trial of 124 supporters of opposition leader Megawati Soekarnoputri that you encountered the detectives with such bad memory loss they had to be warned against contempt of court. The warning did little to improve one police captain's memory. Despite heading to PDI headquarters on the morning of July 27, 1996 with the intention of making arrests, he could not recall how many people were outside PDI headquarters and what they were doing.

Pity he did not have time to watch CNN. He could have seen,like the rest of the world did, the 200 hired thugs wearing the red shirts branding them supporters of Megawati's rival Soerjadi. This is also the time when witnesses never seem to be able to agree or recount the statements they supposedly made to the investigators.

The prosecutor, often on his or her lonesome, never really seems committed to the task. Follow-up questions are rare and little information is extracted from their witnesses in cursory and apathetic 10 or 15 minutes of questions. In contrast, the 90 minute pounding a prosecution witness takes from the defence team, as each circles to take their turn, makes a mockery of the system.


Increasingly, the lacklustre cases presented by the prosecution are being reported in the press, and even the judges chastise the shabby prosecution cases. Detached from the discipline of having to prove anything to get a conviction, the prosecution case and police investigation often comes across with a childlike simplicity and naivety. There's little determination in the execution of their duties.They do not care and do not need to. The New Order's legal juggernaut always get its man or woman.

But increasingly the community is becoming aware that it is not getting what it deserves. It's hard to judge the corrosive effect on an already disrespected legal system, but whatever the damage done by these limp presentation of evidence, particularly in the case of the 124, the damage must be multiplied by a least a thousand fold when the staid Kompas daily exposes it on its front page. Let alone the hundreds who attended the trials of their friends or relatives. What they saw or heard, the indifference to the legal procedures and to the rights of the accused, must be still reverberating around the kampungs.

The prosecutor's sentencing demand is the step where the first rays of compromise come through, often stopping short of making a martyr of the accused with a demand less than the maximum. It is still not a light punishment. Unless you are a millionaire like Eddy Tansil, a few years in Indonesia's badly funded penal system is not a pleasant experience.

But the trial is a show, or to put another way a show of force. A demonstration of the power of the state to deprive the liberty and rights of those it considers aberrant. Those unlucky enough to be tried are being made an example of. The convictions are pro-forma despite any weight of legal argument, because a political trial has been set up to legitimise a punishment.

After the sentence demand, no amount of reasoned objections in the defence statement will have an effect. It is academic. But it is the occasion when the accused has his or her day to speak out publicly in anger for the last time in a number of years. It always feels like a cathartic experience after days of sitting through hearings whose destination, although maybe not time of arrival, can be predicted like reading a train timetable. The crowds of supporters, which traditionally wane during evidence, return for defence statements. They listen, part in sorrow and part in anger.


The verdict invariably brings shouts of 'rigged', and every trial adds to the mounting disrespect for the legal system and the judges who personify it. These days judges, after they hand down a verdict, are escorted from the their own courtroom by riot police.

Each case is a drama in itself. Each day a new episode with ins and outs, ups and downs. But these trials each fit an easily identified pattern. They fit into a much a bigger picture painted by a government perpetuating the fiction that Indonesia is a nation built on laws rather than political power.

Indonesia's political trials are show trials put on for audiences at home and abroad. Anyone who spends a bit of time in one of them can witness for themselves the classic example of the Javanese condition of form over substance.

The writer has attended many political trials in Jakarta in recent years.

Political trials

At the end of February, the following individuals were among those facing charges for their political activities. The list may not be complete. Trials are running separately in several court rooms in the city indicated. Some have not yet begun.

Activists of the informal political party PRD, for subversion (carrying a maximum penalty of death): Budiman Sudjatmiko, 26, autodidact and Yogyakarta human rights campaigner, chairman of PRD. Jakarta. Garda Sembiring, 27, former law student, chairman of PRD's Jakarta student branch SMID. Jakarta. Petrus Hari Hariyanto, 27, former Semarang literature student, democracy activist. Jakarta. Ignatius Damianus Pranowo, mid-20s, former trainee teacher, activist in PRD's labour union PPBI. Jakarta. Jacobus Eko Kurniawan, 25, member of the PRD executive and active in student and labour demonstrations. Jakarta. Suroso, 23, former science and technology student, secretary of SMID for the Jakarta area. Jakarta. Georgeus Ken Budha Kusumandaru, 23, former Bogor economics student. Jakarta. Victor da Costa, 22, self-employed high school graduate born in Flores, SMID activist. Jakarta. Ignatius Putut Arintoko, 20, former boy scout, law student in Purwokerto, SMID member opposed to Abri's 'dual function'. Jakarta. Dita Indah Sari, 23, chairwoman of PRD's labour union PPBI and prominent in actions around Java. Surabaya. Coen Hussein Pontoh, early 20s, chairman of PRD's farmers union STN. Surabaya. M. Sholeh, SMID activist. Surabaya. Wilson bin Nurtyas, 28, PPBI executive member, to face trial soon. I Gusti Anom Astika, 25, PRD executive member, to face trial soon.

A labour leader, for subversion: Muchtar Pakpahan, 43, chairman of the independent labour union SBSI, charged over several books he wrote. Jakarta. The Supreme Court earlier revoked its own decision quashing a four-year sentence after the 1994 Medan riot.

Parliamentarians and a printer, for insulting the President (maximum penalty six years jail): Sri Bintang Pamungkas, 52, former PPP parliamentarian, is appealing to the Supreme Court against a 34-month conviction passed against him last year. Jakarta. Aberson Marle Sihaloho, 58, PDI parliamentarian, is standing trial over speeches he made at the PDI headquarters last July. Jakarta. Andi Syahputra, 31, business manager of the dissident periodical Suara Independen. Jakarta.

Other activists: Agustiana, 34, for subversion over his alleged role in the Tasikmalaya riot of 26 December 1996. Six others may also stand trial on similar charges. Tasikmalaya. Ecep Suardi Yasa and Abu Hasan, students in Purwokerto, for spreading inflammatory writings, because they sold stickers advocating an informal vote in the 1997 election. Three others may also stand trial. Purwokerto.

Inside Indonesia 50: Apr-Jun 1997

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