Ruling in key Indonesian filthy air case postponed – again

Judges say they need more time to review documents in landmark case that seeks to hold government accountable for Jakarta’s pollution.

Indonesia's air quality has deteriorated sharply in the past 20 years partly as a result of the constant traffic, but also from nearby coal-fired power stations and polluting industries [File: Dita Alangkara/AP Photo]

Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesians continue to hold their breath as they await the outcome of a landmark legal battle over who is responsible for Jakarta’s dirty air after a panel of judges delayed their decision for the second time in two months.

The citizen lawsuit was filed in 2019 in a bid to hold the Indonesian government accountable for air pollution in the Indonesian capital.

In legal filings, the 32 plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit also asked that officials be forced to improve the city’s air quality – which regularly hits hazardous levels according to air quality indexes – through tougher regulations and sanctions.

The case has been plagued with delays in recent months. The plaintiffs had originally been expecting a verdict on May 20, before the judges issued a first postponement until June 10. On Thursday, it was postponed again – until June 24.

During the hearing at the Central Jakarta District Court, Chief Justice Saifuddin Zuhri blamed the large number of documents filed in the case for the delay, telling the court that the panel of three judges needed additional time to read through all the legal literature.

“I hope you can accept that we are not able to read the verdict today. Therefore, we have agreed to postpone the decision for two weeks,” he said during the just more than three-minute hearing, which was screened to the public via Zoom due to coronavirus protocols.

In a news release issued by the Clean Air Initiative Coalition, which is made up of the plaintiffs in the citizen lawsuit and their advocacy team, the legal counsel for the plaintiffs, Ayu Eza Tiara, said that she was surprised and disappointed.

“A reading of a verdict that takes up to eight weeks is not something that can be considered reasonable,” she said. “This delay is clear evidence of poor time management … and a violation of the principle of a fast, simple and low-cost trial.

“If we refer to the adage ‘justice delayed, justice denied’… a slow judicial process will certainly not provide justice for the parties. Therefore, we hope that the panel of judges will no longer procrastinate in the future.”

Environmental activists take part in an anti-fossil fuel demonstration against Standard Chartered bank’s financing of the Java 9 and 10 coal-fired power plants. A lawsuit filed in 2019 seeks to hold the government accountable for the deterioration in air quality in Jakarta [File: Bay Ismoyo/AFP]

‘Tough debate’

One of the 32 plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit, Elisa Sutanudjaja, told Al Jazeera that the repeated delays only served to bolster the premise of the case.

“As far as I’m concerned, the postponement is further evidence that air pollution and the climate crisis are not the main priorities of the state, and even the judiciary doesn’t consider poor air quality an urgent issue,” she said.

The case has been controversial since it was filed in 2019, in part because the defendants include Indonesia’s president, the minister of environment and forestry, the minister of home affairs, the governor of Jakarta and the governors of Banten and West Java provinces.

The defendants have also sought to cast doubt on their responsibility for Jakarta’s filthy air, with the governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, even going as far as blaming the plaintiffs themselves for having contributed to the thick smog that regularly cloaks the city.

Istu Prayogi, who previously told Al Jazeera that he was diagnosed with spots in his lungs and suffered from headaches and congestion after living in Jakarta in the 1990s, said that he felt that the court was taking advantage of legal loopholes to avoid making a decision.

“This is the judicial process that we have come to expect in Indonesia,” he said. “The panel of judges should have been able to deliver a verdict, but because they had the option of postponing it, they used that option to buy time.”

Others observing the case wondered if the panel of three judges were locked in a legal impasse, which would also explain the repeated delays.

Indonesian law follows the civil law system, and uses a mix of Dutch colonial law, customary law and modern Indonesian law. There are no juries in Indonesian courts and all verdicts, both in civil and criminal cases, are decided by a panel of judges.

“The length of the verdict and the repeated delays make us suspect that there is a tough debate among the panel of judges about whether to side with a healthy environment or continue to let Jakartans breathe polluted air,” Dwi Sawung, the Energy and Urban Campaign Manager of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), said in a statement.

“However, residents eagerly await the decision of the panel of judges to ensure the future of the quality of the air we breathe in Jakarta.”

Source: Al Jazeera