Indonesia’s Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo faces up to life in jail after being arrested by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission over lobster larvae export permits.
The Anti-Corruption Commission, known by its Indonesian acronym KPK, arrested Mr Prabowo and his wife Iis Rosita Dewi as they arrived at Jakarta airport from the United States this week. Mrs Dewi is a member of the House of Representatives.
Several other senior ministry officials were also among 15 people arrested around the Indonesian capital.
The KPK seized luxury items including Louis Vuitton and Hermes bags, Rolex and Jacob & Co watches, and an Old Navy T-shirt — goods the body alleges Mr Prabowo purchased in Hawaii with the proceeds of corruption.
The KPK said Mr Prabowo — who visited Australia in an official capacity earlier this year — is being investigated over allegations he received bribes worth 3.4 billion Indonesian rupiah ($327,566) and $US100,000 ($136,000) from private companies to secure lobster seed export permits.
The KPK said the alleged bribes are thought to have been facilitated by one of Mrs Dewi’s staffers.
Mr Prabowo was made fisheries minister just over a year ago and swiftly overturned a ban on exports of lobster larvae, introduced to protect declining lobster populations and combat illegal smuggling.
He visited Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney in February and March this year, seeking to “learn” from Australia regarding fisheries management and lobster cultivation.
Minister apologises for ‘betraying’ President Jokowi, party chief
Speaking to journalists at the KPK’s offices while handcuffed and wearing an orange jumpsuit on Wednesday, Mr Prabowo apologised to his mother, the Indonesian public, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto.
If convicted according to the charges identified by the KPK, Mr Prabowo could face either life imprisonment, which would make him only the third person in Indonesian history to be given a life sentence.
Alternatively, he faces a maximum jail sentence of 20 years with a fine of up to 1 billion Indonesian rupiah ($96,300).
“I also apologise to all of the Indonesian people, especially [those who work] in fisheries, who may have been betrayed,” he said.
Mr Subianto heads up the Gerindra Party — long seen as his personal political vehicle to the presidency — of which Mr Prabowo is a member.
The investigative magazine Tempo reported in July that several of the companies awarded export permits by Mr Prabowo’s Fisheries Ministry are headed up or owned by Gerindra politicians.
Mr Prabowo is one of the only Gerindra ministers in Mr Widodo’s cabinet, making his arrest a major blow to both Mr Widodo and Mr Subianto.
Mr Prabowo would be the third member of Mr Widodo’s cabinet imprisoned for corruption if convicted and jailed.
Kanti Pertiwi, an expert on corruption at the University of Indonesia, told the ABC that Mr Prabowo’s arrest seemed to be an attempt to “correct the narrative”, given declining public confidence in the commitment of the Jokowi administration and the leadership of the KPK in eradicating corruption.
But according to Hendi Yogi Prabowo, director of the Centre for Forensic Accounting Studies at the Islamic University of Indonesia, “it takes more than just the arrest of suspects in one major case to improve the KPK’s image in the eyes of the public”.
“The KPK must also be able to show the public that the process of investigating and investigating the lobster export bribery case involving the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries is actually carried out in a professional manner so that anyone involved will be exposed,” he said.
Former deputy chairman of Gerindra Arief Poyuono, meanwhile, said Mr Prabowo’s arrest had killed Mr Subianto’s chances of ever becoming president.
“With the arrest of Edhy Prabowo, Prabowo Subianto’s dream of becoming president of Indonesia has ended and it will affect the electability of the Gerindra Party,” he said, as quoted by local media.
Mr Subianto ran unsuccessfully against Mr Widodo in both the 2014 and 2019 elections, before being added to cabinet at the beginning of Mr Widodo’s second term.
Crippling of corruption fighting agency
President Joko Widodo this week affirmed his support for the work of the KPK.
“I believe the KPK works in a transparent, open and professional manner,” Mr Widodo told reporters.
But the House of Representatives has steadily weakened the KPK — one of Indonesia’s most respected institutions — in recent years.
Established in 2002, the KPK has frequently investigated, prosecuted and imprisoned high-profile politicians and officials, and in 2018 jailed the then-speaker of the House Setya Novanto for 15 years.
The Indonesian legislature passed controversial reforms in September 2019, which turned the formerly independent KPK into a government agency and curbed its ability to use wire taps.
The appointment of senior police officials to KPK positions has been widely criticised, given that police are often the target of KPK investigations.
“Through the revision of the KPK law, many legal experts view the KPK as losing its authority and independence,” said Dr Pertiwi of the University of Indonesia.
“However for me, this weakening has opened my eyes that the corruption eradication agenda is no longer enjoying the consensus it used to.”
KPK officials have also faced threats to their physical safety.
In 2017, KPK investigator Novel Baswedan was attacked with acid as he returned home from morning prayers at his local mosque.
Mr Baswedan spent 10 months in Singapore receiving medical treatment and was left blind in one eye.
His two assailants — both police officers — were jailed for just 18 months and two years respectively, a decision slammed by anti-corruption campaigners and rights groups.
Mr Baswedan said he felt the officers were simply scapegoats acting on behalf of senior police.
Former minister has long criticised lobster policy
Mr Prabowo’s predecessor Susi Pudjiastuti, a prominent businesswoman, was one of the most popular politicians in Indonesia when she was replaced in Mr Widodo’s cabinet in late 2019.
While minister, Ms Pudjiastuti banned the export of lobster seeds, and has publicly criticised Mr Prabowo’s overturning of the ban.
“Isn’t it better to wait [until the lobsters] are big and sell them for 30 times the price?” she tweeted in December last year.
“So many things in the lobster larvae export policy aren’t transparent or accountable,” Susan Herawati, secretary-general of the NGO Coalition for Fisheries Justice, said in a statement provided to the environmental news outlet Mongabay.
“The KPK must thoroughly investigate this corruption allegation to its core,” Ms Herawati said.