Reason for Judicial Reform in Indonesia, Historical View

A brief history of judicial decline in Indonesia may make clear how complex and difficult a problem the courts presented by the end of the 1990s. During the postrevolutionary parliamentary period from 1950 to 1959, despite a multitude of problems, Indonesian legal institutions worked reasonably well. From first instance through the Mahkamah Agung, judges were respected, took their independence for granted, decided cases well, and had begun the hard work of adapting colonial law and precedent to the norms and conditions of the newly independent state and the society it governed. The base of strong legal institutions—including the prosecution, police, and private legal
profession—was a parliamentary government led by political leaders, many of them professional lawyers, who took quite seriously the need for effective legal process in a diverse society capable of generating dangerous social and political tension.
The parliamentary system came to an end, however, in the years 1957-1959, as the result of regional rebellion, cold war interventions, political party conflicts, and a politically engaged army. In mid-1959 the liberal provisional constitution of 1950 was replaced by the strong presidential constitution of 1945, while recent parliamentary efforts to begin a process of decentralization were overturned in favor of just the opposite, a hyper-centralization of authority and power into Jakarta. In the severe political tensions that defined politics thereafter, nearly all state institutions were transformed into political assets or neutralized and rendered ineffective. A nearly immediate side-effect was corruption and related abused, as some officials took advantage of the leeway their new uses allowed them. In the judicial system prosecutors began to use powers of preliminary investigation to arrest wealthy figures as hostages, in effect, for ransom.. In short time, prosecutors offered judges a share for the sake of procedural efficiency. Once prosecutors and judges were allied, private advocates had little choice but to join what came soon to be called the “judicial mafia.”
In 1966, following the coups of late 1965 that led to the fall of President Soekarno and the rise of General Suharto, a small group of judges, prosecutors, police officials, and private lawyers, established an activist organization, the “Servants of the Law” (Pengabdi Hukum), which lasted only two or three years before all of the officials were withdrawn, and the organization was reduced to a few advocates alone before itdisappeared. Once the New Order government made clear that the fundamentals of Guided Democracy’s structure and procedures would remain intact in the New Order, and (tacitly) that legal process would not be restored to its earlier autonomy but would be subject to the same (equally tacit) rules that applied over the last few years, malfeasance and corruption in the prosecution and courts skyrocketed. Over the next thirty years the whole of judicial process sank into an institutional abyss, as money increasingly defined just about every operation from career mobility through judicial process, decision making, and implementation. There remained honest and capable judges, prosecutor police officials, private advocates, and notaries, but they no longer defined their institutions, and citizens came to doubt their existence. By the end of the 1990’s, conditions in Indonesia’s judicial structure made courts, prosecution, and police principal targets of reform. But as the New Order political elite had little interest in basic reforms that would either eliminate them or impose severe limits, so too were legal officials threatened by change and hard to approach with any reform strategy short of simply destroying their institutions, or emptying them out, and starting anew.

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