Top Indonesian judge suspended

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has suspended the chief judge of the Constitutional Court in a bid to salvage the integrity of the nation's highest offices, days after the judge, Akil Mochtar, was caught with a bag stuffed with cash at his home and drugs were found in his office drawer.

The President ordered checks to be tightened on the Constitutional Court and its judges, and called for a review of the way top judges are chosen. He also assigned the Judicial Committee to monitor the court.

"This is a political tragedy and a tragedy in upholding the law and justice in the country," Dr Yudhoyono told reporters yesterday at the presidential palace after a two-hour meeting with senior government office-holders.

His comments came as anti-graft officials confirmed that marijuana and Ecstasy pills were found at Dr Akil's office and deepened investigations into a suspected attempt to bribe the judge to influence his rulings in at least two disputed district-level election results.

The case has sparked national outrage, casting doubt on the fairness of Indonesia's entire judicial process. It confirms a long-held view that even judges in the highest court with extensive powers are on the take.

The arrest marks the first time that a Constitutional Court judge has been caught, following the arrests of prominent officials in the police and political parties, plunging the nation into a crisis of confidence.

"The public is going through a demoralisation that has no precedent in our history," wrote Mr Budiarto Shambazy in national daily Kompas. "The question is: Is there anyone or any institution left that can command the authority to find a solution that satisfies the public?"

Dr Saharuddin Daming, a law professor with Bogor's Ibn Khaldun University, recorded 309 local district chiefs - over half of all in the country - as having been questioned or charged with graft.

Investigators from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) have accused Dr Akil of accepting one billion rupiah (S$110,000) in bribes from Tubagus Chaeri Wardana, the husband of the South Tangerang mayor and brother of the Banten governor.

The judge, a former Golkar politician, was caught at home red-handed with three billion rupiah worth of Singapore and US dollars. Arrested with him were politician Chairun Nisa and businessman Cornelis, who are alleged to have tried to bribe him to rule in favour of Kalimantan Central's Gunung Mas district head Hambit Bintih, whose win last month is being disputed in court.

Late last Friday, KPK officers confirmed the discovery of drugs in Dr Akil's office drawer, reinforcing allegations that some judges take drugs.

As he was led into the KPK building under the glare of television cameras and journalists last Thursday night, an upset Dr Akil slapped a reporter who had asked him if he would have his own fingers cut off. The question was prompted by an earlier suggestion by Dr Akil about stripping the wealth of those convicted of graft and cutting off their fingers to set an example.

Observers say that the case has cast a pall on the fairness of next year's general and presidential elections.

"If possible, the Constitutional Court should replace all the judges slated to preside in any outstanding cases of election results disputes," said Dr Saldi Isra, the head of law faculty in Andalas University.

Others are demanding that the remaining eight judges in the Constitutional Court resign and a new panel selected to choose a clean slate.

Dr Yudhoyono said he had received many "emotional" SMSes and calls demanding that he impose a death sentence on Dr Akil to send a clear signal that graft cannot be tolerated.

Dr Yudhoyono also suggested that the Constitutional Court, which has convened an ethics inquiry over the case, open itself to an external audit by independent authorities. He also urged the KPK to complete its investigations quickly but thoroughly to prevent any further suspicions of interference.

"I hope that the Constitutional Court will also preside over any further cases with extra care to prevent any new suggestions of graft," he said. "Remember, the public's trust in the court is very low now."

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