Indonesia’s ‘Trial of the Century’ ends in death sentence

The murder trial of former two-star police general Ferdy Sambo has exposed the force to rare public scrutiny.

Two police officers on patrol at the court in Jakarta. They are in full riot gear wearing helmets and carrying weapons. Their faces are covered as well.
Police keep watch at the Jakarta murder trial of former senior police officer Ferdy Sambo [Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters]

Medan, Indonesia – Indonesia’s so-called “trial of the century” has concluded with a senior police officer sentenced to death for the murder of his bodyguard.

Ferdy Sambo, the former head of Indonesia’s Internal Affairs department and a two-star general, was handed the death penalty on Monday by Chief Justice Wahyu Imam Santoso for the killing of his aide-de-camp, Police Brigadier Nofriansyah Yosua Hutabarat, in a case widely seen as a litmus test of police accountability in Indonesia.

“The defendant embarrassed Indonesia’s police force both at home and internationally, and involved other members of the police force in his crime,” Judge Santoso said to cheers as he handed down the sentence in the packed courtroom in South Jakarta.

In his sentencing remarks, which took more than four hours to read, Santoso and the panel of two other judges said that Sambo had planned the murder of Hutabarat and conspired to cover up any evidence of the crime by destroying closed-circuit video footage.

According to Santoso, Sambo first ordered one of his bodyguards, Richard Eliezer Pudihang Lumiu, to shoot the 27-year-old Hutabarat at Sambo’s home in Jakarta on July 8, 2022, before putting on black gloves and firing additional shots into Hutabarat’s body.

The case has fascinated and appalled Indonesians for months, with court proceedings exposing the police to rare scrutiny.

“The verdict conformed to the law and the public sense of justice,” Ian Wilson from Murdoch University’s Indo-Pacific Research Centre told Al Jazeera. “The intense media scrutiny and public interest, along with the facts of the case, meant a harsh sentence for Sambo was inevitable.”

Ferdy Sambo seated in court. He is wearing a white shirt and black facemask and has his hand raised.
Ferdy Sambo was in court to hear the sentence but portrayed little emotion as the judge announced his decision [Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters]

The prosecution had asked for a life sentence, suggesting an affair between Hutabarat and Sambo’s wife, Putri Candrawathi, provided a motive for the killing. Hutabarat’s family said they did not believe that any such affair took place as Hutabarat was in a committed relationship.

Candrawathi was also on trial alongside Sambo, also charged with premeditated murder.

Speaking following Sambo’s sentencing, Hutabarat’s mother, Rosti Simanjuntak, said that God had been present at the trial and granted the family a miracle for “the drops of blood that flowed from my child”.

“We had to be patient and we praise the court because the sentence was in line with the family’s wishes,” she told the media.

Sambo and Candrawathi had claimed in their defence that Hutabarat had sexually assaulted Candrawathi before being killed in a gunfight with Lumiu.

Judge Santoso said that there was no evidence that any sexual assault had taken place and that the firefight appeared to have been staged.

When addressing the allegations of an affair, the judge said that the court did not need to provide a motive for the crime, and that Indonesian law only needed to prove that a crime had been committed and that the accused had committed it.

Abuse of trust

Ranto Sibarani, a human rights lawyer who grew up in Jambi, the same province as Hutabarat, told Al Jazeera that the death sentence was appropriate given that Sambo was a law enforcement officer.

“He was supposed to protect the public as a police officer and find and catch murderers, not become a murderer himself,” Sibarani said. “He was given a weapon and the trust to use it properly by the state, and he abused that weapon and his position as the head of internal affairs.”

Yosua's mother surrounded by media and supporters outside the court after sentence was passed. She is carrying a picture of her son.
Yosua’s mother, Rosti Simanjuntak (centre), said she was pleased that her son’s killer had been sentenced to death [Aditya Aji/AFP]

When sentencing Sambo to death, Chief Justice Santoso said the aggravating factors that led to the death sentence included the fact Sambo had killed his own aide-de-camp and had caused great pain to Hutabarat’s family. He added that Sambo’s actions also caused discomfort in the community and were unbefitting a member of law enforcement. Santoso said there were no mitigating factors and noted Sambo had shown no remorse for his crime.

In Indonesia, the death sentence is usually carried out by firing squad.

Sambo’s wife, Putri Candrawathi, meanwhile, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in the hours after her husband’s sentencing — a far longer term than the eight years the prosecution had asked for.

When sentencing Candrawathi, the judges said that she had sullied the name of the Indonesian police as the wife of a police officer and should have provided a good example to the public. The judges also said there were no mitigating factors in Candrawathi’s case.

Sambo and Candrawathi can both appeal their sentences, although they have yet to indicate that they will.

Putri Candrawathi in court. She is wearing a white shirt and white face mask. Her head is bowed so her hair slightly covers her face.
Putri Candrawathi, Ferdy’s wife, was also found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison, more than twice the sentence the prosecution had sought [Aditya Aji/AFP]

Both were on trial along with three other defendants also charged with premeditated murder and who will be sentenced over the next two days.

They include Candrawathi’s personal assistant Kuat Ma’ruf, who was given 15 years, Sambo’s bodyguard Ricky Rizal Wibowo, as well as junior police officer Richard Eliezer Pudihang Lumiu, who admitted that he fired several shots into Hutabarat on Sambo’s orders. He later collaborated with the police.

The prosecution has asked for eight-year terms for Ma’ruf and Wibowo, and a 12-year term for Lumiu.

Indonesia’s police on trial

In a statement, Amnesty Indonesia said that the case should serve as a reminder to the police that it needed to make serious improvements in its internal operations and that this was “not the first time that a police officer had been involved in an extrajudicial killing”.

“Failure to ensure accountability has the potential to lead to repeated human rights violations by officials,” the statement said. Amnesty is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances.

Indonesia’s police force is also on trial over the deadly crush at the Kanjuruhan stadium in October last year that left 135 people dead after police fired tear gas indiscriminately at football fans, some of whom were young children.

Three police officers and three match officials are currently on trial in both criminal and civil cases involving the deaths.

In a survey in August last year, the pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia found that just 54.2 percent of the Indonesian public had trust in the police, compared with 58.8 percent in the Corruption Eradication Commission and 63.4 percent in the Attorney General’s Office.

Still, Murdoch University’s Wilson says he doubts the case will result in any long-lasting reform of the national police despite the damning picture it portrayed of the institution.

“While it could be read as showing there are limits to police impunity, I think this shouldn’t be overstated,” he said. “It’s a high profile case in which the victim and perpetrator are police. It was inevitable that a heavy sentence would be handed down. You can compare this, for example, to the lack of progress and systemic obstruction in accountability for the Kanjuruhan disaster.”

Sibarani, however, is more optimistic and said that the case and the verdicts could serve as a catalyst for change, particularly if viewed alongside other cases that could provide additional momentum for reform.

“Of course, there is always a chance of police reform if the government and the president want it. Particularly now after Kanjuruhan and the Sambo cases,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera