Sunday, December 02, 2007

Stir Crazy

Well I've been gored and eviscerated by the runaway bull of Indonesian nationalism on the Jakarta Post letters page of late and this week I may get myself into yet more hot water, but let's press on anyway.

A fortnight ago, a United Nations report was published; its subject: the Indonesian penal system and its, "Cult of impunity," for members of the police and military who torture inmates in prisons and detention centers across the country. Mr Manfred Novak, a UN human rights monitor, said that he found evidence of detainees being electrocuted, suffering systematic beatings and even being shot in the legs at close range. Mr Novak was quoted as saying that, "The problem of police abuse appears to be sufficiently widespread as to warrant immediate attention." He called for a separate offence of torture to be created, a reduction in the time people spend in police custody and an independent complaints system.

This is all very interesting although not entirely surprising to anyone who's lived in this country for a while. During my time here, crawling through the thorns of the Big Durian, I have had two very different encounters with internment Indonesian style.

On the first occasion, which happened only a few months after I first arrived in Jakarta, I was pick pocketed on a footbridge on Jl. Sudirman. I saw the poor wretch responsible making his getaway and actually managed to catch up with him. Unfortunately though, he had already passed my wallet on to an unknown accomplice. Events quickly escalated as a security guard from a nearby building arrived on the scene to hold the guy. Soon after, a policeman arrived in all his light brown, ill fitting shirted finery.

We all drove down to the cop shop together in a van and were shown into a room at the nearby Polda police headquarters. Inside, the officer in question proceeded to interrogate my assailant with the aid of a huge 2 foot long desk stapler. After inflicting a few red welts on the poor wretches back, the lawman held his long arm out and offered me his dual purpose office utility. “Would you like a go Mr?" he asked. "Er... I think I'll wait outside," I said and stepped through the door, my heart racing.

Outside, through the muffled sound of thwacking coming from the room next door, I was grilled by the desk sergeant. "Where are you from Mr?.... What are you doing here?.... Where is your passport?..... Don't you know that you must report to the police every six months?" I was getting a good third degree grilling even though I was the victim. When his back was turned I quietly slipped away out of the police station lest I also be given the dreaded Samurai stapler treatment. What a strange day.

My second experience with the dark underbelly of Indonesia's penal system came when I visited a friend who spent an unfortunate three months in sunny Salemba jail after being caught with a small pinch of Oregano (the better to make his spaghetti with you understand).

It proved to be an expensive stay for the poor lad as an ever escalating series of bribes were scaled. My friend was also shelling out several million a month to stay in the nicer part of the prison, i.e. a room separate from the various caged thugs, murderers and gangsters who make up the majority of the lags down at good ol' Salemba.

Impoverished Indonesians who wind up in jail have it even worse though. If they find themselves in the animal pen they are often tortured by other inmates until they reveal where they live. Word is then passed to the outside and the heavies are sent round to the address in question in order to extort the poor guy's family. Grim stuff indeed.

Back to my friend though. His stay inside interestingly coincided with that of elderly, bucktoothed fundamentalist Abu Bakar Bashir who was then serving time for his alleged role in the Bali bombing. When I went to visit I had to wait in line with around 30 of his bearded and be-turbaned followers who had come all the way from East Java to show their support for the myopic (in every sense of the word) Bashir. They seemed somewhat interested to see an infidel in their midst.

Of course, the whole issue of the penal system here throws this country's corruption and its elite/plebeian class divide into sharp relief. If you're poor, you'll be thrown in the slammer to rot without a second glance (or fair trial). If you are a rich corruptor though, the continuing parlous state of the judiciary will enable you to purchase your freedom.

If you have the connections and the money you can escape incarceration not only before your trial but also, amazingly, even after you have been found guilty. Yes, pending several lengthy appeals processes we have time and again seen convicted fat cats remain firmly ensconced in their luxury pieds-a-terre.

Often, the judiciary has tried to neutralize negative public perception of this unfairness by coming up with the fascinating concept of city arrest. Now, I've heard of house arrest. The detention of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi springs to mind as a prominent example. Although in fact, even house arrest wouldn't seem so bad to a few of my acquaintances, so long as they could keep sending the maid out for a steady supply of noodles, DVDs and beer. City arrest though... how does that work? It certainly doesn't seem like a very stringent punishment does it? And why stop there? How about planetary arrest? “Yes your honor, our client solemnly undertakes not to have his BMW fitted with an ionic positron drive and to head out of the solar system into the asteroid belt pending his appeal."

If you're not minted with ill gotten gains though, it's best not to chance anything illegal here I say. Have a good week and keep your noses clean. Let's have no dabbling in drugs, pornography, copyright infringement or alternative interpretations of Islam. Give thanks that you are an honest law-abiding citizen the next time you drop the soap in the Mandi.