Forest fires: Five cases going to Indonesian A-G

Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry will submit five cases of land and forest fires to the Attorney-General's office by the end of the month, a ministry official told The Straits Times last Friday.

The cases are among 26 that are under investigation.

Mr Shaifuddin Akbar, a sub- director at the ministry who is in charge of coordinating the investigations, declined to name the culprits but said the cases involved illegal fires in Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra and Central Kalimantan provinces during last year's transboundary haze crisis.

The ministry is pressing criminal charges against errant companies and smallholders accused of clearing land by burning, which in turn triggered uncontrolled fires between August and November last year. These offences carry a maximum sentence of 10 years and a maximum fine of 10 billion rupiah (S$1 million).

The Attorney-General's office will write up indictments based on the criminal investigation dossier from the ministry, and table them in the district courts.

Mr Shaifuddin said the criminal cases had been slow due to an inadequate number of personnel.

"We are overloaded. Only 10 investigators are working on the 26 cases," he told The Straits Times, adding that only five cases had reached an advanced, cross-examination stage.

His ministry has filed a request to the Law and Human Rights Ministry to boost the number of investigators. He said he needed more officials with an environment case investigator licence.

"We can work at full speed only after then," Mr Shaifuddin said.

The criminal investigations are in addition to the administrative sanctions the Environment and Forestry Ministry imposed on companies late last year. Some had their business licences revoked, others suspended.

Concurrently, Indonesian police are also investigating companies and individuals that used illegal slash-and-burn techniques to clear land during last year's haze season. None of these had reached the Attorney-General's office.

Under Indonesian law, any criminal investigation dossier drawn up by an authorised body - including the police and the Environment and Forestry Ministry - must be submitted to the Attorney-General before trials begin.

When asked by The Straits Times at a recent doorstop for an update on prosecutions of companies accused of illegal land clearing, Attorney-General Muhammad Prasetyo said: "I haven't been updated of any progress on this."

This article was first published on April 18, 2016.
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