Malaysian firm fined, executives get prison for role in forest fires

Malaysian firm fined, executives get prison for role in forest fires

A Malaysian manager at plantation firm PT ADEI Plantation and Industry, a unit of Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad, was found guilty on Tuesday of causing forest fires in Riau last year that led to haze choking neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.

The Pelalawan District Court in Riau sentenced ADEI general manager Danesuvaran KR Singam to a year in prison and the option of paying Rp 2 billion (S$210,000) or serving an additional two months in jail for violating Article 99 (1) of the 2009 Environmental Protection and Management Law.

"The defendant was negligent in his supervisory role of the estate. He should have actively prevented irresponsible parties from slipping into the estate and setting the fires," presiding judge Donovan Pendapotan said.

Danesuvaran, however, was not sent directly to prison after the hearing. "We need to wait for a final and binding verdict from the Supreme Court before sending the defendant to prison," said prosecutor Banu Laksmana, adding that the prosecutors would appeal the sentence.

The court found ADEI guilty of violating the same article in the 2009 law and handed down a Rp 1.5 billion fine or see its director, Tan Kei Yoong, serve five months in jail. The court also ordered ADEI to pay an additional Rp 15.1 billion to repair the environmental damage caused by the forest fires.

Between June and August last year, the slash-and-burn fires on plantations in Riau and some parts of Kalimantan triggered severe haze that blanketed Singapore and some parts of Malaysia, as well as areas of Indonesia near the blaze.

In response to the subsequent diplomatic uproar, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologised to the neighbouring countries.

The incident also served as a catalyst for Singaporean legislators to pass a law in August that allows the city state to prosecute local and foreign firms involved in illegal forest burning that leads to severe air pollution. The law was also a response to Indonesia's lack of action in preventing a repeat of the problem.

Despite the verdict, the law-enforcement monitoring deputy at the Presidential Working Unit for the Supervision and Management of Development (UKP4), Mas Achmad Santosa, argued it was not enough as the sentence was deemed too light.

Mas Achmad said the judges' lack of appreciation of the ecological crisis was the reason behind such a light punishment.

"The sentences are too light and fail to provide a deterrent effect. They do not reflect the court's sense of crisis about the impact of land and forest fires on our environment," Mas Achmad said on Tuesday.

However, he praised the court for holding the company and its top officials to account in the case.

"Cases related to land and forest fires usually end up in the arrest of field operators only. But by applying the corporate criminal liability approach [as in this case], the functional perpetrators, such as the business executives or the corporation itself, can now be punished," he said.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment's (Walhi) Riau chapter executive director, Riko Kurniawan, meanwhile, suggested the court speed up its deliberations in the future. "These two cases took around seven months. Law-enforcement officials should wrap up future forest-fire cases faster if they really want to show their commitment to protecting the environment," he said.

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