Indonesian police's image in tatters as murder scandal widens

Suspended internal affairs chief Insp Gen. Ferdy Sambo arriving on Aug 4, 2022 at the National Police's Criminal Investigation Department in Jakarta for questioning. - Antara

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network): Public faith in the National Police is believed to have hit a historic low, as the cover-up scandal in the murder of Brig. Nofriansyah Yosua Hutabarat allegedly at the hands of Insp. Gen. Ferdy Sambo widens into allegations of elite factionalism within the force and institutional complicity in the shadowy underworld of illegal gambling.

The police force has been mired in various scandals before, but the latest controversy — in which Ferdy, then the police’s internal affairs chief, allegedly masterminded Yosua’s killing and its cover up with the help of his own men and other police officials — has exposed the culture of violence and manipulation that has long plagued the force.

“This is the worst scandal in the police’s history. Imagine 62 people who were supposed to enforce the law voluntarily breaking the law and jeopardising their future,” Indonesia Police Watch (IPW) chairman Sugeng Teguh Santoso told The Jakarta Post recently.

The scandal appears to have only grown bigger in recent days.

As the police investigate the cover-up conspiracy, questioning at least 83 officers for alleged ethics breaches and obstruction of justice for tampering with the crime scene, public attention has now turned to Ferdy’s role as leader of an elite special task force that analysts say is emblematic of factionalism within the force.

The task force, known as Satgassus Merah Putih, was created by then police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian in 2016. It answered to the police chief and was tasked with conducting criminal investigations into cases deemed as priority by the police leadership such as those related to illegal drugs, money laundering, corruption and cybercrimes.

At the beginning of its establishment, Satgassus was led by then chief detective Comr. Gen. Idham Azis with Ferdy as secretary.

Ferdy succeeded Idham in May 2020 and extended his term in July 2022 to lead its more than 400 elite members.

The task force drew criticism for its overlapping authorities and for demoralising other officers due to its broad authority to take over significant cases.

"We see that Satgassus had a form of exclusivity as most of the members were appointed based on their close relations, not through a merit system," Poenky Indarti of the National Police Commission said.

Police chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo disbanded the task force soon after suspending and charging Ferdy with premeditated murder. He stopped short of detailing the reasons behind his decision, only saying that it was no longer needed.

Speculation over the roles of the special task force then mounted following the circulation of a document outlining the alleged involvement of Ferdy and other high-ranking police officers, including Jakarta Police chief Insp. Gen Fadil Imran, in an illegal gambling business.

They are accused of being part of group known as Consortium 303, with “303” referring to the article on gambling in the Criminal Code. The document, the authenticity of which the Post has been unable to verify, alleged that Sambo was the leader of an “empire” presiding over online gambling businesses across the country.

The police said their special investigation into the murder case of Yosua and the alleged obstruction of justice by several police officers did not reveal any information about Ferdy’s connection to illegal gambling, but that they were investigating the document.

"If there is enough evidence in the case, of course, in accordance with the police chief’s instruction, we will take strict action," police spokesman Insp Gen Dedi Prasetyo said.

In the wake of the allegations, Listyo ordered his men to launch a crackdown on illegal gambling and warned them that he would not tolerate anyone involved in such a felony.

“If they are caught [backing gambling], I will remove them. I don’t care if they are the police precinct chiefs, directors or the regional police chiefs,” he said.

The police arrested 34 illegal gambling suspects in two raids on Thursday and Friday I(Aug 18-19) in Central Java, including six suspects in an alleged online gambling ring in Bojongsari district, Purbalingga regency, following Listyo’s order.

“Off-budget financing, particularly from illegal gambling, has long been a constituent part of how [the police] function. For a long time, off-budget financing has been justified as a necessary evil, or a kind of noble-cause corruption, in face of the state’s inability to fully finance the police,” said Jacqui Baker, a Murdoch University lecturer who has conducted extensive research on the police’s off-budget economy.

While the scandal has potentially exposed in considerable detail the police’s off-budget financing, she said it was unlikely that it would bring about any major changes, citing persistent factionalism within the force among the reasons.

“Factionalism is a hindrance to police reform in that factionalism is both the reason for the persistence of the off-budget economy and a mechanism for extracting illicit monies. But factionalism doesn’t stop with the police,” she said.

“Factionalism is in the interests of the political and economic class who seek to fund and back ‘their officer’ who will help them navigate legal and security challenges. If you control the police, you control the boundary between legal and criminal.”

Bambang Ruminto, a security analyst at the Institute for Security and Strategic Studies (ISESS), concurred with Baker, saying that the entrenched factionalism within the police force had prevented the institution from undertaking any meaningful reform.

The absence of a merit system in the police force has made the internal power struggle become more antagonistic, with elites from different factions taking each other hostage.

“The figure of the police chief is key. If the police chief is unable to consolidate different factions, frictions between different factions will be visible,” he said.

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