It’s tough being a poor criminal

I’ve blogged a bit about Indonesia’s judicial mafia (although admittedly I haven’t given it the attention it deserves). That’s why I thought I’d at least link to and comment on this new Asia Sentinel article about the “judicial mafia.”

The article starts by contrasting the case of Ms. Siti Hasana, who stole $100 worth of hairdryers and beauty creams, with rich defendants who are able to bribe judges. She then complains that she couldn’t afford bail and he prosecutors insisted on going to trial.

To me, this seems like a distinctly unsympathetic case. Siti claimed she only stole because she was poor, but beauty products! Really? The article seems to be attempting to criticize Indonesia’s justice system, but through the lens of a perfectly normal prosecution. This is an important problem in the study of foreign justice systems – just what is fair in criminal prosecutions? At one point do you claim that the system acted improperly with respect to a particular defendant?

Siti’s lawyer also makes some “interesting” claims with regard to judicial corruption:

Not only in this case, but in almost all cases, it is very hard to prove any corruption, but we can feel it. We can smell indications of corruption. In this case I would say there are indications the owner of the shop may have bribed the prosecutors, but I can’t prove that.

I don’t doubt that corruption riddles the court, but this type of argument by innuendo does nothing but tarnish the judiciary’s image. If anything, the statement sounds less like an analysis of Indonesian judicial reform than an attempt to mount a case for his client (after all, if the courts are corrupt, her guilty verdict can’t be fair, right?).

The articles discussion of the disparities between prison conditions is more substantive. The rich can obtain luxurious prisons (and usually early release), while the poor are locked in squalid dungeons. Here is an excerpt:

Tommy Suharto, the son of the former dictator, was found guilty of killing the judge who sentenced him to 18 months in jail for corruption. He received 15 years in jail, but only spent four of them in prison where he was served by personal staff in a comfortable room. 

Danang Widoyoko, the coordinator of Indonesian Corruption Watch, says that stories of inmates living very comfortably in prison are all too common.

“There is a joke in Indonesia that you can buy everything in prison except a car and get everything except your freedom. If you have money you can buy everything. You can decorate your cell, or choose which room you want. If you want air-conditioning or free access for your family – that is actually offered by prison guards. Of course bribery is involved and there is still no policy to address this situation,” he said.

Overall, it’s important to remember that, while judicial corruption is real and extremely damaging, not all claims of judicial corruption should be treated equally. If anything, politicians and litigants all might allegations of judicial corruption to advance their own goals.

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