Medan, Indonesia – Indonesia’s police force has developed a reputation for violence and impunity, but the murder case involving Police Brigadier Nofriansyah Yosua Hutabarat shocked the country.
On July 8 last year, the 27-year-old was shot dead at the home of Ferdy Sambo, one of Indonesia’s most senior police officers and its head of internal affairs — the department responsible for police conduct.
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After a four-month trial, Sambo was sentenced to death last month for the premeditated murder of Hutabarat in a spectacular fall from grace that has focused attention on the state of Indonesia’s National Police, better known as Polri, and the need for reform.
Jacqui Baker, a lecturer in Southeast Asian politics at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, told Al Jazeera that she was shocked that a police officer had been handed a death sentence but that she thought the judiciary had followed public sentiment.
“The only thing that will trump the impunity of the state in Indonesia is public sentiment and the court was very aware of that,” she said, adding that Hutabarat’s family had been pivotal in raising awareness of the case. “The public saw themselves in that family.”
Hutabarat’s parents, Samuel Hutabarat and Rosti Simanjuntak, defied orders not to open his coffin when his bullet-ridden body was flown back to Jambi, his home province, for burial. They then filmed what they saw on their mobile phones, sharing the footage on social media.
They also fought to keep the case in the public eye and demanded to know exactly what had happened at Sambo’s house in Jakarta on the day of the murder — dismissing Sambo’s claims that Hutabarat had sexually assaulted his wife, Putri Candrawathi, and started shooting at Sambo when confronted about the assault.
At sentencing, Judge Imam Wahyu Santoso said that he did not believe that Candrawathi had been assaulted either and sentenced her to 20 years in prison.
Candrawathi’s personal assistant, Kuat Ma’ruf, was sentenced to 15 years for the murder, while Chief Police Brigadier Ricky Rizal Wibowo will be imprisoned for 13 years.
After turning police witness, Richard Eliezer Pudihang Limiu, a junior police officer and Sambo’s bodyguard, was sentenced to just 18 months in prison despite admitting to firing between three and four shots into Hutabarat on Sambo’s orders. On February 22, Limiu faced an ethics committee which allowed him to remain in the police force.
Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that, even if the court had indeed bowed to public pressure, it was rare to see a police general prosecuted in Indonesia, and moreover, convicted and jailed.
“There have been fewer than 10 cases in the past ranging from corruption to murder,” he said, “The conviction of Ferdy Sambo is a public education that even a general is not above the law in Indonesia.”
Indonesia’s police force was established after Indonesia secured independence in 1946 and, nearly 20 years later, was made a branch of the country’s military.
The two institutions were separated following the fall of President Soeharto in 1998.
Many hoped the split, and Indonesia’s embrace of democracy after 30 years of strongman rule, would create the conditions for police reform amid concerns about human rights abuses and brutality.
Since then, Polri has gone through a number of changes, including the creation of the National Police Commission known as Kompolnas, a monitoring institution meant to inspire a more accountable police force.
Polri also reports directly to the Indonesian president, which is supposed to help ensure further transparency and honest policing. Some officers have also received human rights training.
Andy Irfan, the secretary-general of KontraS, the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence, told Al Jazeera that the Sambo case is a reminder that the reforms promised more than 20 years ago have failed to live up to expectations.
“We all understand that in this case the National Police as a law enforcer failed to develop an accountable and professional internal system,” he said, adding that the Sambo case did not end with his punishment along with his co-accused.
“Through this case, the chief of police and the president, as the Chief of Police’s direct superior, must develop systematic and widespread changes in the police work system which prioritises the principles of professionalism and respect for human rights. Indonesia does not yet have a democratic and professional police force.”
He added that excessive use of force, violence and extrajudicial or unlawful killings and corruption continue despite the changes.
In addition to the Sambo case, three police officers went on trial in January after a stampede at a football match in Malang, Indonesia, in October last year in which 135 people died.
The officers faced charges of criminal negligence resulting in injury and death after police fired tear gas into stands, but the trial, which began in January, was plagued with allegations of procedural irregularities and intimidation of witnesses.
Last week, two of the police officers were acquitted, and one was given an 18-month sentence, despite the prosecution asking for three-year sentences for each of the men.
Families and friends of the victims were devastated.
Official reports into the disaster had already found the police at fault for using tear gas, which is banned by the sport’s international governing body, FIFA.
Harsono of Human Rights Watch said that some of the systemic issues with Indonesia’s police stem from the legislation that governs the institution.
“The Indonesian police law makes the National Police an autonomous institution, lacking oversight. Indonesian authorities should amend the police law to reform the institution, ranging from putting it under ministerial supervision to strengthening internal mechanisms against abuses,” he said.
Sambo’s sentence may be seen as a rare example of police accountability, but few expect it will herald real change.
Baker said there was a risk the focus on that case could allow the police to sidestep concerns about abuses within the wider force.
“Polri understood that this was not going away and decided to make an example of Sambo to say ‘Look at this exceptionally evil individual’,” she said, adding that this did not address the systemic issues within the force that needed to be confronted following the conclusion of the trial.
“There is a relationship of servitude which starts from police schools where there is a relationship of bullying and hazing that embeds relationships of power,” she said, adding that this helped explain why so many other members of the force were part of the case.
In addition to the two other police officers on trial, more than 80 additional police officers, including both internal affairs and staff from Jakarta’s police headquarters, were implicated in helping to cover up the crime.
“Rank dominates Polri and in this case suggests that serious work needs to be done around power and how senior figures wield that power,” she said. “Every day juniors have ethical problems because of the actions of their superiors. Your entire career hinges on another person’s political power.”
“We need to see a shift in the politics and people being loyal to the post and not to the person.”